Saturday, 25 February 2017

Gay Vikings, the Papal curse, thirty-year-old fake news, a Fascist purge and New York resilience

The tail-end of Storm Doris may have subsided, but it would appear that the weather may have been a factor that prevented many of our regulars at Polari from attending on Friday - I went on my own and, apart from our host Paul Burston and one of our readers Suzi Feay, I only recognised among the literati the gorgeous Max Wallis, Polari stalwart Chris Chalmers, and sexy Lexi (with whom I shared a table) at the LGBT History Month 2017 special of "London's peerless gay literary salon"...

Regardless, this was - as ever - and evening of top-notch entertaining and thought-provoking literature.

Our opening reader was a case in point. With a confidence and erudition that belied her youthful looks, Leon Craig (Leonora Craig Cohen) - who has a postgraduate degree in Medieval Studies - read for us a fabulous short story all about the convoluted relationships of two Viking families, the husbands in which were evidently (and quite publicly) enjoying a gay relationship. Told in the first person position of the wife in one of the couples, it was both wryly funny and beautifully evocative of a lost world of savage feuds, intrigues and the privations of trying to eke out a living in bleak climes. Unfortunately, the story itself is not online, but another of Ms Craig's witty pieces is. Here's How to tell if you are in a Viking Saga:
  • You have started a bloody multi-generational feud by stealing cheese.
  • You have gone away to Constantinople and left your dashing blond brother to manage all your property. You are confident nothing can go wrong.
  • Everyone around you is named Thorolf, except for Thorstein Cod-Biter, who lives over in the next valley. Many say he is part-troll. But they have learnt not to say it to his face.
  • The current feud in which you are embroiled seems likely to be resolved by prodding a blindfolded horse off a cliff with poles. This horse is known for its malice.
  • You have a very muted reaction to losing your limbs.
  • As the house burns down around you, your elderly father reflects that fostering his enemy’s son was probably a mistake.
  • Your survival hinges on the arrangement of poorly-maintained paths through a remote swamp. You will not survive.
  • Your limp has provided you with the opportunity to become an expert in the convoluted Icelandic legal system. Small, seemingly insignificant comments allow you to manipulate justice for years after your untimely death.
  • You have enraged a family of Sami wizards, who like to stand on your roof and sing all night.
  • An elderly woman, known for her second-sight, gives you specific instructions to avoid being murdered. You ignore her.
  • You think a summer of raiding and mercenary warfare will curb the violent tendencies of your young relative.
  • Someone has accused you of being an arse-wizard and for this they will pay.
  • Your enemy has made a miniature wood-carving of you being sodomized and nobody asks him why.
  • You are a distant ancestor of Snorri Sturluson.
  • Your main concerns about Christianity are the bans on infant exposure and the ritualised eating of horseflesh.
  • You went to bed with Queen Gunnhildr and she has cursed you with a penis so large it cannot be used.
  • Your mother is a kidnapped Irish princess, but didn’t think to mention this for years.
  • At the age of three, you were already composing skaldic verse and outdrinking grown men. Your grandparents are very proud of you.
  • Everyone you have ever loved, been related to, or looked at flirtatiously during the summer parliament has died in a feud. You are raising your sons to continue the feud.
  • Most of your problems can be explained with the phrase ‘cold are the counsels of women.’
  • You once exiled someone from Norway using a severed horse head on a stick.
  • Greenland is horrible, but you have persuaded people to move there with false advertising.
  • You may have died in an unusually horrible manner, but at least this rocky outcrop is named after you.
  • If you can compose a sufficiently good poem praising the king, you’re off the hook for killing his infant son.
  • You and your cousins once beat a man to death over a piece of driftwood.
  • Everyone agrees you have the eyes of a thief.
  • No man in Iceland was your equal, so you became a zombie-killing nun instead.

Suzi Feay is a long-term Polari-ite, former journalist, book reviewer and grande dame of the literary events world - and a bloody good poet, too, it seems! Overcoming her "nerves", she read for us several of her (as yet unpublished) works. My favourite of these was Save it for the Pope in Rome, a pithy paean to the Eternal City and its effects on the lives and loves of people who pass through its hallowed environs. Again, unfortunately, no online evidence exists; however the following (completely unrelated) clip of a much younger Suzi amused me so much I just had to feature it here - as she tries to keep a straight face while modelling fetish clothing courtesy of Skin Two emporium:

Dr Sebastian Buckle is another whose fresh-faced prettiness masks the astonishing depth of knowledge and historical investigation that underpins his new work The Way Out: A History of Homosexuality in Modern Britain, from which he read us a segment that examined a familiar era for many in the audience, the 80s. As he said:
Rather than ushering in a new period of increased acceptance, 1967 had instead paved the way for a new political hostility and backlash, which was replicated in negative stereotypes played out with increased vitriol throughout the 1980s... [with] prosecutions for indecency, sodomy, soliciting and procuring at an all-time high.
Played out in salacious and outrageously homophobic terms in the newspapers of the day, the consensus of those influential right-wing media moguls in the midst of the "AIDS panic" was that “homosexuality is abnormal, unnatural, a bit evil because it’s wrong.” Such was the power of the press, Dr Buckle provided many examples where, during the key debates that ultimately led to the vilified Section 28, many Tory MPs directly quoted from newspaper opinion-pieces as if they were fact (or representative of public opinion) in the House of Commons. Chilling times. I remember them well.

I was engrossed. Had the (hardback) book not been £32 at the Foyles outlet on the night, I definitely would have purchased a copy.

Sarah Day, opening the second half, proudly informed the audience that her debut novel Mussolini's Island, from which she was to read was genuinely "hot off the presses", only having been published this week. And what a debut! Telling the tale of a little-known and sinister episode in Italy's pre-WW2 history, the forced imprisonment of gay men, her extract focused on the doomed attempt by the book's lead character Francesco as he tried to run away from the secret police who had come for him, and was utterly engrossing. Antonia Senior in The Times summarised the tale thus:
They were degenerates. Embarrassments to the new, imperial, fascist Italy. There was no place in Mussolini’s vision for homosexuality. Homosexuals were victimised and persecuted and, in some parts of the country, rounded up and sent into exile.

In 1939 a group of gay men were taken from their homes in Sicily and imprisoned on San Domino, a beautiful, but poor island in the Tremiti archipelago in the Adriatic Sea. Sarah Day has taken this fragment of history and written a fascinating debut, Mussolini’s Island.
I loved it!

Our headliner was Tim Murphy, a New York journalist on LGBT issues, culture and politics, now turned author. His magnum opus Christodora has also only just been published - and it was from it that he read a wonderful passage that evoked perfectly the "partying-in-the-face-of-doom" era of 1980s New York.

He introduced us to one of the book's many intertwined heroes and anti-heroes Issy - on a night out with her gay friends to one of the many "underground" clubs of the day - who gets herself into a rather unwanted situation; a "quickie" in an alleyway with a handsome stranger. Several consequences of this liaison permeate the rest of the novel: Issy herself contracts HIV and becomes an activist, and she also bears a son - who grows up (adopted after her death) in the "Christodora" building that gives the book its title, and around which many of the stories revolve.

It was a wonderful story, and certainly whetted my appetite to read more!

And so, with resounding - and much-deserved - applause for all concerned, the evening drew to a close. Because the next Polari (part of the Southbank's Women of the World festival) next month is completely sold-out already(!), it looks as if we're going to have to wait till summer for another outing [sniff, sniff]! I await details...

I love Polari.


  1. Fab review as always. 'Polari' could use your blogs as an archive of their events. I haven't been to one for ages so I very much value you keeping me up to date.

    1. You're welcome, dear. Jx

      PS and yes, it is quite an archive - nine years' worth!


Please leave a message - I value your comments!

[NB Bear with me if there is a delay - thanks to spammers I might need to approve comments]