Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Get Hur! - our history interpreted

Ably steered once more by our genial host and all-round expert in gay antiquity Egyptologist John J Johnston, last night's Camden & Islington LGBT History Month event Every Good Thing at the wondrous Petrie Museum was sheer joy...

The premise of the evening was that a selection of hand-picked LGBT figures from the world of arts and academia were invited to speak a little about the stories behind their chosen objects from the museum's collection. A very clever way to introduce a number of wonderfully enlightening discussions about our gay antecedents - some of the stories familiar, some less so. [And many of which will appear, or indeed have already appeared, in the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp as time goes on.]

Opening the selection, the very charming actor and comedian Tom Allen chose a very tiny alabaster head of a sculpture of Alexander the Great. That led us into an examination of the passionate love between the young world-conqueror and his lover and general Hephaestion, on whose death was honoured by Alexander as a Divine Hero. At the time of his own death eight months later, Alexander was still planning lasting monuments to Hephaestion's memory, and, it has been written that the Emperor's own premature death was partly brought on by his inconsolable grief at his loss.

Writer James Goss (who has worked on various Dr Who and Torchwood-related media for several years) chose the object that gave us perhaps the most wonderfully camp back-story of the lot. The subject, another tiny head from a tiny statue, was of an Old Kingdom Pharaoh of whom we had never heard before - Pepi II, whose nocturnal wanderings to visit his burly lover, General Sisene, complete with a "shag-ladder", were fabulous - and the discussion had the whole audience laughing.

Taking a step away from face-to-face conversation, Director of Camden LGBT Forum Lou Hart had given her apologies as she was double-booked with conflicting History Month events - but nonetheless recorded her insights into her choice of a frieze of Akhenaten, the radical and later vilified Pharaoh who, with his wife Nefertiti and quite possibly his male lover Smenkhkare after her death, dragged a reluctant Egypt away from the old gods towards his own brand of sun-worship. Lou's analysis of the peculiarly androgynous way Akhenaten is usually portrayed, and the unconventionally sensual depiction of his domestic set-ups, surmised that he may have deliberately or otherwise conveyed a trans- or at the very least a "fey" and unmasculine gender identity. Interesting stuff, indeed...

The (rather cute, Madam Arcati and I thought) Public Astronomer Marek Kukula, true to his profession, chose the shadow clock of Senenu, who was a mystic, a scientist and scribe at the highly camp cross-dressing court of the female Pharoah Hatshepsut, an era shrouded in conspiracy and naughty goings-on.

It was time for another pre-recorded topic, as Mr Johnson proudly introduced an audio recording from Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University Gregory Woods, who used the statue of Antinous that adorns the main University College London (UCL) building upon whose campus the Petrie Museum resides to open the topic of that doomed boy, favourite and beloved of Emperor Hadrian. Was he a self-sacrifice for the continued health and prosperity of his God-Emperor lover? Was the frenzy that surrounded his ascendancy to the role of deity a major factor in the rabid homophobia of the Christians who took over Rome not long afterwards? The questions perpetuate his adoration by gays even to this day. [I have, of course, written of Antinous before (following last year's History Month event at the museum) - see here and here.]

Next up, artist Andrew Prior has apparently been so inspired by the beautiful boys (and girls) depicted on the sarcophagi of the later Romano-Egyptian era that he has produced several works of his own based upon their style - and very camp they are too! Check them out on his website.

Returning to a favourite gay historical theme, child prodigy pianist Mark Viner chose a coin from the reign of Emperor Hadrian to focus on the hysteria of the way the burly world leader expressed his grief over the death of Antinous, the raising of an entire city in his name (that continued to worship him long after Christianity had become the Empire's official religion) and the numerous incarnations of the beautiful one's image that survived long after other, older, deities had been disregarded (often re-named and re-designated as being of other historical figures).

On the home stretch of the discussion, the editor of Gay Star News Tris Reid-Smith chose a rather fabulous piece - an ancient and fragile segment of papyrus that told the myth of Seth and Horus, the original brawling gay bitches (and uncle and nephew), whose ninety-year war for the throne of the King of the Gods culminated in a rather fab seduction - "how lovely your backside is!" says Seth to Horus - and a spunk-fest that decides the contest once and for all in young Horus's favour. You'd have to hear it to believe it, and this was written in around 1850 BC!

Our final guest, another Dr Who and Torchwood writer Joseph Lidster chose a little pink hippo amulet, which, continuing the story Tris Reid-Smith had set up, illustrated another aspect of the battle between Seth and Horus, whereby they transmogrify into hippos - whose own behaviour includes the victor in battle "mounting" the loser as part of their submission routine. Even in nature, it seems...

But now the academic stuff drew to a close, and it was time for the most wonderful treat - a live performance by our dear gay icon Bette Bourne [who today I have made our latest "exhibit" in the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp] and his partner of 37 years Paul Shaw, who masterfully performed one of their classic "interpretative" pieces "Get Hur!"!

True to the night's theme, the piece (very) roughly followed the gay love story of Hadrian and Antinous, and included a hilarious audience-participation sketch Titty-bum, titty-bum, bum, bum (to the tune of the William Tell Overture). Truly, truly awesome to behold - and a perfect finale to a brilliant evening!

Petrie Museum

Camden and Islington LGBT History Month

Bette Bourne over at the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp


  1. It does sound wonderful … torn between this and Polari, I think you may have got the long straw on this night ;) x

    1. It is a shame I couldn't make both. However, I am extremely pleased we were at this magnificent evening! Jx


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