Thursday, 18 February 2016

Priapic fascination, sword-swallowing, hypnotic behaviour, a cinaedus and a jar of jelly-beans

It's LGBT History Month again - and our first event of this estimable feast of historical insights was Polari on Tuesday. Of course.

Hostess-with-the-mostest at "London's peerless gay literary salon" Mr Paul Burston, in the absence of partner-in-crime VG Lee had seated us (John-John, Alex, Jayne and I) in the "Royal Box" (one of the front tables), leaving Paul, Bryanne, Simon and the rest to languish in the stalls... We waved, regally. Occasionally.

Anyhoo - opening this month's show was historian Jennifer Ingleheart, with her fascinating talk (technically, a mini-lecture, given that we had handouts and everything) Romosexuality. Cleverly weaving in references to both EM Forster's classic gay love story Maurice and the Victorian pornographic novel Teleny (purportedly written, at least in part, by Oscar Wilde), her point was to illustrate how, in spite of repeated scorn from scholars through the ages, it is in fact the Roman perspective on gay relationships rather than the idealised Greek which bears more relevance to our modern lives:
Areas in which specifically Roman rather than Greek sexual practices and ideologies intersect in significant ways with modern homosexualities include, in particular, Rome’s ‘Priapic’ fascination with well-endowed males, its greater concentration on and candour about sex, and its adherence to a less rigidly structured age-related model of same-sex relationships than that of Greek pedagogic pederasty; Roman texts contain more examples of men’s desire for and sex with other adult males, and have thus been read as authorizing same-sex relationships which involve partners defined by their same-sex attraction rather than their desire for the sexually other...

Despite its prominence in scholarly accounts of homosexuality, and its important role for early gay rights activists, it might be argued that Greek homosexuality does not play a comparable role in contemporary popular culture: its pederastic aspect provides a stumbling block for many gay men.
Excellent stuff - as I am sure fellow gay historian and regular host of History Month events at our beloved Petrie Museum, John J Johnson (in the Polari audience for the very first time) agreed.

Next to the stage was poet David Clarke, who read a selection of works from his collection Arc. From that anthology, this...
Sword-Swallowing for Beginners
Start by flicking the fleshy switch at the back
of your throat. When you’ve thrown up a dozen times,
you’ll find the impulse subsides – you can sit for hours
with a knuckle softly pressed inside your head,

watching rolling news of the war. Insert spoons,
knitting needles, a length of plumber’s pipe.
Stare at the ceiling, your jaw loose as a gorging
python’s, and try to conjure those shocks that pass

through the body, but leave it intact – the rasp of panicked
breath, the whump of a nearby explosion, a scream.
Or think of the soldier who coughed up a sleeping bullet,
shrapnel burrowing out of a human thigh

to freedom. By then you’ll be ready to take a blunted
bayonet, silver and slick with spit. Arrange
your body around that deathly spindle,
repeat to yourself – I am unharmed. Unharmed.

Closing the first half, our chum Chris Green - most famous as the delightful Hip Hop Music Hall legend Miss Ida Barr (who we like so much, my sister even had her play at her wedding reception!). One thing we never knew was his lifelong fascination with hypnotism, and it was from his new book on the history of the subject Overpowered! from which he read a few engrossing pieces before inviting questions from the audience. And speaking of engrossing, how about his newest stage creation, The Singing Hypnotist?

Suitably - ahem - mesmerised, it was time for a quick break for a fag and a top-up.

Our next reader, novelist Sarah Walton has dedicated herself to her art. To prepare for writing her debut Rufius [his caricature heads this blog], Miss Walton studied for a PhD and, in her words "immersed myself for five years in the everyday clutter of ancient Roman lives – from favourite recipes to remedies for genital warts." She introduced the book thus:
"Meet Rufius, flamboyant hedonist with perfect eyebrows. Rufius is a cinaedus, Latin for an effeminate buggeree. Far from the hard, muscular Roman ideal, cinaedi wore make-up, curled their hair, plucked and painted on their eyebrows. They could be thought of as an ancient Roman version of transgender. The laws that condemned these men to public burning became more severe under the Christian Emperors, but Rufius is having none of it. He’s not ashamed of wearing his mother’s cameo brooches on his toga, and he’s not going to stop talking with a lisp because of a bunch of jumped up bishops!"

And who better to portray the man himself but Chris Green (again), complete with all the mincing..?
"Fill my glass, boy."

What a drag. Avoid the pirates, Damasus had said. I could strangle him. Who’d have thought I’d be cast off to the East? I must be the only cinaedus exiled in the history of the Roman Empire. Exile’s a punishment reserved for senators and poets. Legally it’s a valid sentence for my kind, but no judge would bother... unless bribed by Damasus, the Arch-bloody-bishop of Rome. Curse you, Damasus. I’ll fleece you for this...

"Curse that Archbishop and his double chins – at least he has a few more than me." Men are tortured and beheaded without a trial for being in possession of heretical books. Exile and in league with that scoundrel! But what choice did I have when he waved the law at me … and the Emperor Gratian wrapped around his fat finger... "Need I remind you of the punishment for being a cinaedus, Rufius?" I recall the smell of the roses in the Lateran Basilica that day. Yellow rose petals, crushed in Damasus’ hand, fluttered through his fingers as he spat out the word cinaedus. His laughter at having me cornered still makes me shiver with rage. I’ll fleece him for this. If he thinks he’s getting fifty percent of the profits he’s misjudged me. The best way to hurt Damasus is in his precious purse.

"Pharos," shouts a deck hand. "Lighthouse. Starboard."

"Shut him up will you, dear?" I reach out to stroke the slave’s hair. "I can’t tip you, but I can give you a kiss." He lets me pet him, ready to jump away at the slightest angry twitch. He’ll receive a decent tip for putting up with my ill temper. Simple joys, like surprising slaves with the odd forbidden possession, are what keep my pulse throbbing these days.
Campness abounds. Utterly sublime.

Only a reader of the brilliance of our eternal favourite Mr Jonathan Harvey could follow that! Reading from his new novel The Secrets We Keep, he teased us with the mysterious tale of Natalie "...that woman, the one whose husband disappeared. It's made me quite famous. I just wish it was for something else. He went out five years ago for a pint of milk and never came back. So here I am with a daughter who blames me for all that's wrong in the world, a son trying his best to pick up the pieces and a gaggle of new neighbours who are over friendly, and incredibly nosy. Then I find a left luggage ticket in the pocket of one of his old coats and suddenly I'm thinking... What's if he's not dead? What if he's still out there somewhere?" Here's a snippet:
It was the late eighties, and lots of loft apartments and offices lay empty. And it was at a party in one of these that I met a gorgeous guy just a year or two younger than me who was addicted to jelly bean sweets. This was Danny. He claimed he’d seen me out and about around London, working the door of a club near Piccadilly Circus. I had no recollection of him. But before I could say so he’d offered me a sweet. The rest, as they say, is history.

For years he kept a jar of these sweets in the fridge. I used to bicker with him that there was no need, those sweets don’t really go off, but he said he liked the colour they brought to the fridge. They were his sweet of choice and he enjoyed the ritual of opening the door, pulling the nipple shaped lid off the jar in the door, and furtling around inside for a handful of the multicoloured beans. After he disappeared I didn’t dare move them from their home. If that fridge was jelly-bean-free it meant I had given up hope. He would return. He would furtle and eat again.
The left luggage ticket and the jelly beans themselves come back into the story as our heroine decides to use subterfuge to investigate more. On discovering that a woman had come to collect the "lost" parcel, she gets a job as her cleaner - and it's then she discovers a familiar jar in her fridge...

We were on the edge of our seats - but will need to read the book to find the true story.

This was a splendid evening (once again), and, despite being left wanting more - it was a brilliant way to start out LGBT History Month celebrations.

Our next outing for Polari on 9th March will be part of the South Bank's Women of the World festival, and features headliner Polari First Book Prize 2013 winner Mari Hannah, together with Jacquie Lawrence, Sophie Sparham and VA Fearon and (again) Sophie Ellis-Bextor's mum Janet Ellis. Can't wait!

Polari website


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, luv. It was a great evening! Jx

  2. Bona blog dear! 'Twas a fabulous evening and next week the ball. Jx

    1. Thanks, dearie! I have booked a few events between now and the Ball - it'll be a busy one next week! Jx

    2. Great blog! Having missed the evening this really does bring it to life and make me wish I'd been there. See you next month! X

    3. You were missed, sweetie :-)


Please leave a message - I value your comments!