Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Dystopian matriarchy, lust, society balls, Mother Courage and an Oscar-winning hunk

It was with great - nay, salivating - anticipation that John-John, Paul and I braved the foul storms and rain on Monday night and headed to the Southbank Centre for a very special outing for "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari. For we knew our headliner was none other the Oscar-winning [for Milk] Dustin Lance Black - screenwriter, director, film and television producer, LGBT rights activist, and husband to Tom Daley!

There was no sign of the gorgeous Tom on the evening, more's the pity, but it was an utterly faboo evening, nonetheless!

Opening proceedings as ever - to a packed house of familiar faces (including the lovely John McCullough, Bryanne - with broken leg and a hilarious scooter - and Simon, VG Lee and more), our host Paul Burston proudly listed the many and varied venues that Polari had visited, and will visit, up and down the country as part of the continuing Polari Tour - not least the superb birthday celebration for Heaven nightclub we went to last month. This month's event was also the occasion to announce the Polari Book Prize; but first, our opening reader, Angela Chadwick.

She read for us an extract from her debut novel XX, described by one reviewer perfectly thus:
Rosie wants a child. Her partner Jules isn’t sure. But a new trial offers the lesbian couple a chance to have a baby which uses DNA from both their eggs, rather than forcing them to rely on a sperm donor to become parents.

Jules is excited about becoming part of the ground-breaking experiment and feels more comfortable about bringing up a child who is biologically her daughter.

But they are not prepared for the furious backlash from the trial’s critics, or the intense Press interest which follows their every move. Former journalist Angela Chadwick’s interesting and thought-provoking first novel explores the ethics of creating babies with two biological mothers whose X chromosomes can only create daughters.

[The] measured writing means the reader can consider the arguments from both sides, rather than being told what to think and there are plenty of unexpected twists to keep the plot moving.
It was very impressive indeed.

Next up, Georgia native Mr Collin Kelley is a familiar - if somewhat in frequent - reader at Polari. He read a series of his poems about lust, longing and his affinity with England, to the delight of the audience.

More Mr Kelley here and here.

Completing our triptych was another Transatlantic Anglophile, Ms Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, whose reading took us away from the concerns of the modern world into a more glittering domain - that of the waspish author Truman Capote and his circle of society acolytes, to whose vanity he appealed with his words and his society events such as the legendary Black and White Ball. More specifically, her novel Swan Song [read an excellent review courtesy of ArtsDesk] deals with the apocalyptic fallout in the upper echelons of New York society when Truman decided to "bite the hand that fed him" by publishing a thinly-veiled fictional expose of the foibles and scandals behind the gilded lives of the ladies he called "his Swans".

I only wish there were a YouTube video out there of Ms Greenberg-Jephcott reading from her book - as she perfectly imitated the already drug-addled Capote's nasal whiny drawl and prissiness, trying desperately to hide and protect the valuable manuscript of the story that would lead to his downfall... I thoroughly enjoyed it! [Must try and get the audiobook.]

Next, Polari stalwart and national treasure (and unfortunately not-made-a-Dame-again) VG (Val) Lee and bestselling award winning author Kiki Archer presented the longlists for not one, but two book prizes - for writers whose work explores the LGBTQ+ experience, whether in poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction - on offer at the salon this year!

First, the contenders for The Polari First Book Prize 2019:

The House on Half Moon Street – Alex Reeve (Raven)
XX – Angela Chadwick (Dialogue Books)
The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor – Rana Haddad (Hoopoe)
Soho – Richard Scott (Faber & Faber)
Attend – West Camel (Orenda Books)
Disbanded Kingdom – Polis Loizou (Cloud Lodge)
Not Just A Tomboy – Caspar J Baldwin (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
Next Lesson – Chris Woodley
Queer Sex – Juno Roche (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
Out of the Woods – Luke Turner (Orion)
Visceral – RJ Arkhipov (Zuleika)
Yes You Are Trans Enough – Mia Violet (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

...and the full longlist for the brand new Polari Prize (for established authors) 2019:

Drapetomania – John R Gordon (Team Angelica)
The Other Woman – Sophia Blackwell (Burning Eye)
Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Headline)
The Lion Tamer Who Lost – Louise Beech (Orenda Books)
A Simple Scale – David Llewellyn (Seren)
Making Oscar Wilde – Michéle Mendelsshon (Oxford University Press)
Louis & Louise – Julie Cohen (Orion)
Playtime – Andrew McMillan (Penguin)
Prodigal – Charles Lambert (Gallic)
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway – Kate Bradbury (Bloomsbury)
Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss (Granta)
The AQI – David Tait (Smith / Doorstop)

After a break for a fag, dodging the downpours outside the Royal Festival Hall, and a top-up, it was time for the showpiece of the evening - as Mr Dustin Lance Black took to the stage.

Such an instantly engaging and charismatic man (and swooningly handsome to boot), he soon had the audience in turn laughing and crying as he read the moving intro to his memoir Mama's Boy:
A hot, gauzy morning in the late summer of 1987. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the streets of Los Angeles. I was thirteen years old but looked ten at best - an agonizingly shy Texas boy with eyes like water, hair like the sun, and a tanker truck’s worth of secrets. I was jammed in the backseat of my mom’s mas­sive yellow Malibu Classic between my little brother, Todd, and our stinking cat, Airborne. My mom said we were “on the move.” Others would have called it “on the run.”

Days earlier, my family had packed up what little we had of value and vanished without notice from our lives in the Lone Star State - leaving behind my middle school in San Antonio and our Mormon church in the Randolph Ward, heading west. My mom was behind the wheel, her hairspray-stiffened curls resting on worried shoulders as she worked the hand controls to speed up and slow down her beast of a car: a colossal artefact from a former life that now had to be wrested into submission by a woman who walked on crutches, her legs in braces, her spine fused and held together with metal bars hid­den just beneath the scars that ran the length of her body...

...we’d been taught our entire lives that places like Los Angeles were filled with folks who’d traded their souls and sal­vation for fame, booze, drugs, cash, cars, hetero sex, group sex, and dirty, filthy faggot sex. Los Angeles was the embodiment of an unfa­miliar, exotic America that we’d been warned to avoid: liberal, often coastal, a place for sinners and moral relativists. For our ragtag family on the run, passage through this city was a test of spiritual strength. So we plugged our noses in back, Marcus did his best to navigate up front, and my tiny runaway mom rotated the hand control that turned the gear that pressed down on the gas pedal that she hoped might propel us to safety...

...I described Los Angeles as the “second gayest city in the world.” It wasn’t a compliment. I was already fairly certain that San Francisco was in first position thanks to AIDS hitting the national news when Old Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson fell out of his closet and into his grave. Since then, even the news shows in Texas had started offering up images of emaciated gay men, most in San Francisco, but others in New York and Los Angeles, dying terrible deaths thanks to their “lifestyle choices.” So yes, it seemed that San Francisco was the closest to hellfire, but I was fairly certain Los Angeles wasn’t far behind. I suppose I felt it neces­sary to let someone in Texas know I’d survived our journey through this foreign land.

But as we reached the top of a mountain, something in my God-fearing heart stirred, and I looked back toward the city. It was calling to me. If I’m being honest, it had started calling well before we set out on this adventure. If Los Angeles was dangerous, I was curious. How true were the stories I’d heard? Did the people there really do so many strange things to their bodies, their minds, and one another? Did they really make all of those movies and TV shows I’d fallen in love with on the rare occasions we were allowed to watch them? And the most dangerous question of all: Did the nation’s current teen heartthrob, Ricky Schroder, with his golden hair and ocean-blue eyes, actually live somewhere down in all that chaos?

That question, and all of its invasive roots and sticky webs, lin­gered longest in my mind as I watched the city glimmer and shine in the morning sun until it slowly disappeared behind a veil of blue-white smog.

Thirty years have passed since that drive, and for more than two and a half decades of that time I’ve called this City of Angels my home, with all of its sunshine, celebrities, workers, artists, headaches, egos, booze, dreams, lies, cigarette butts, body parts, hot tubs, invitations, hangovers, trophies, and yes, reliably progressive values. And like most Angelenos, I’ve spent much of that time in my car getting from place to place, tucked inside my bubble. Isolated. And in a hurry.

So whenever I heard a siren, I did what most Angelenos do: look forward, left, right, check my rearview mirror, and keep on driving. As an Angeleno, the last thing you want to do is tap the brake. The clock is ticking. We have places to be, coffees to order, deals to make, and great things to accomplish by lunchtime.

But something happened a few years back to strip me of that habit. I was driving home down Hollywood Boulevard when my mom called. I hit the icon on my dash to answer. She sounded gloomy and called herself a “dinosaur” twice. I’d rarely heard her in such a state. I was worried. So I added a three-day layover via Dulles Airport in Virginia to my next love-fuelled flight to London to see the Brit I was fast falling head over heels for. It was a little surprise visit to lift my mom’s spirits, and a big birthday present to myself...

...She wasn’t feeling well, but that was nothing new. For a variety of reasons, big and small, she’d long been forced to use her not incon­siderable strength to fight off this illness or that. We’d done this ailment dance many times. We simply took advantage of her sleep­less nights to share stories, watch NCIS, check out the Home Shop­ping Network’s jewelry specials and buy a few pairs of earrings she couldn’t afford on a military retirement check, sneak far too many Oreo cookies, and witness a sunrise. Her spirits were lifted by the company. So were mine.

Just before I left, my stepdad arrived home from work to take her to the doctor for a checkup, and get her some antibiotics for what she felt sure was a bladder infection. Love hungry and London bound, I ordered a cab to the airport.

It was a markedly quiet ride. I don’t remember music ever even being turned on. But then my cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Mom.” Nothing unusual. This was her regular call to say she missed me already, and I would say the same, because it was true. Instead, when I said hello, my stepdad’s trembling voice rang in my ears: “Your mother collapsed. In the garage. Her heart stopped. The med­ics got here. They did CPR and revived her, but she isn’t conscious. It’s bad, Lance. It’s really bad.”

I couldn’t process it. This was the same brave mom who had suc­cessfully slayed the City of Angels years earlier with three little boys and no use of her legs. It was impossible to imagine her having to be revived by anyone. My mom was the one who kept everyone else safe and strong. Her tough, stubborn heart didn’t need a stranger’s help to keep going.

Choking out the words, I told the cabdriver what I’d just heard, and bless his heart, he ploughed right over the grassy centre median and turned back the way we’d come. Soon we heard the siren. Then we saw an ambulance take a left turn off of my mom’s road, rac­ing away from us toward the local Manassas hospital. That’s when I noticed that, like they did in Los Angeles, the drivers in this small, polite, Southern town mostly didn’t bother to pull over for ambulances either. Maybe a brief pause to let it pass, then a chase to make up their lost time in its wake. As we raced to catch up, I grew more and more distressed by this surprising similarity. My mom, my best friend, my rock was inside of that ambulance fighting for her life, and even here in her treasured South, no one seemed to give a damn. Our terror was their inconvenience...

...I started to shake. Until then, I hadn’t considered that she might die. Everything I’d ever built was thanks to that stubborn heart of hers, and there it was, racing away from me in the back of an ambu­lance. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I’d ever again feel the warmth of her hand, know the might of her will, or stand atop the foundation she’d built for our family with the strength of her steel-clad spine... Although my mom and I had often disagreed politically and per­sonally, she’d led our family by example, instilling in us a can-do atti­tude that often defied reason—an optimism many would call foolish, ignorant, and naïve, but an optimism that occasionally shocked our neighbours and our world with its brazen veracity. She was my reason...

...So I let the cabdriver know that I’d pay for any ticket he got, but that if he didn’t push his pedal to the floor, he was asking for a big old can of whoop-ass from yours truly. He didn’t need much convincing. My red eyes had already made the stakes abundantly clear. My mom had to live. Because deep in my gut, I feared a storm was coming. Beyond the headlines of the day, I could just make out the sparks of division catching fire in the disparate places we called home, and I knew that my mom and I had much more to discover and build if we were going to help our neighbours and family weather the terrible schisms this storm would bring.

So I held my zen-like cabdriver’s gaze until he looked back out toward the ambulance that was now racing away from us, and he hit the gas.

It must have been somewhat difficult for all concerned (as I commented to Mr Black later) to progress from such an emotional wrench to a full "in-conversation" session with Paul Burston, but, after gathering themselves, it was a rewarding session - covering topics ranging from fame, families (both Lance's childhood and his current family with Tom and little Robbie) to campaigning for LGBT equality, the strains of being "role models", current politics and being vigilant about protecting our rights in the future, to pride, prejudice, and all that. It was a joy.

[Watch his interview on Lorraine Kelly Show for more]

It also happened to be, as Paul revealed, the adorable one's birthday - and in a genuine moment of camaraderie, the whole room took part in a heartfelt chorus of Happy Birthday To You:

After the customary curtain-call, it was time to join the queue to get our copies of Mr Black's book signed. True to form, he seemed unfazed by the attention, and had the patience to speak to everyone on a personal and genuine level, and to have his photo taken with all of us in turn. I think after this, we're all a little bit in love with Dustin Lance Black.

Another triumphal evening! We love Polari.

Our next outing will be on 26th July - and our host-with-the-most Paul Burston will lead the pack, reading from his own new novel The Closer I Get. His "supporting cast" will include the lovely Alex Marwood, Bethan Roberts, Orlando Ortega-Medina and Kate Davies. Can't wait.

PS Get well soon, Paulo!


  1. I enjoyed reading the extract, and I might read more, thank you.
    Tom Daley is a bit of a Devon hero, and he is often mentioned on Spotlight - our regional BBC news programme.

    1. It is so rare for somebody famous to emerge out of Plymouth :-)

      [Apart from Beryl Cook, Donald Sinden, Trevor Francis, Sharron Davis and Wayne Sleep, of course.]



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