Friday, 30 July 2021

Dildos, cottaging, illicit gay goings-on in Tehran, gay flood-warnings... and Liza with a "Z"?!

It's not every literary event that provides such a mixture of the earnest, the salacious, the intelligent, the funny and a bit of unexpected pizzazz thrown in for good measure. Then again, there is no other bookish gathering quite like "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari!

And so it was that I braved the elements and, on my own for a change, went along to the latest outing - once again in the cavernous surroundings of Heaven nightclub on Wednesday night. And what a night it was, too...

Our MC the marvellous Paul Burston opened proceedings with a flourish - and without further ado, our opening salvo came courtesy of the lovely Kate Davies, 2020 Polari Prize winner and noted children's author, who has turned her hand [quite literally in the case of one of the pieces she read for us about her first fisting experience] to semi-autobiographical fiction, with a book that has been described as the ‘lesbian Bridget Jones’ In At The Deep End. From it, [the other extract she read for us] a shopping trip with a difference...

More filth and depravity was to follow, thank goodness.

Our next reader was one of the nominees for this year's Polari First Book Prize [awarded annually for a first book which explores the LGBTQ+ experience] Paul Mendez. You get the idea that there must be something special about it when a debut work by any author is described by none other than Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo thus:

"When did you last read a novel about a young, black, gay, Jehovah Witness man from Wolverhampton who flees his community to make his way in London as a prostitute? This might be a debut, but Mendez is an exciting, accomplished and daring storyteller with a great ear for dialogue. Graphic Erotica Alert! Don't read this book if you like your fiction cosy and middle-of-the-road."

Indeed, from the extract he read from the work in question Rainbow Milk, where our protagonist Jesse begins his journey to a different life with a particularly raunchy encounter with a stranger in a public toilet lock-up, where both parties discover the advantages of his having no gag reflex, I think Ms Evaristo was entirely correct...

Having fanned myself sufficiently to cool down after that (all-too-familiar) reminiscence, it was time for something completely different.

Golnoosh Nour was born and brought up in Iran, and now teaches creative writing at the University of East London, Birkbeck College and the University of Bedfordshire. Her collection of short stories about the conflicted lives of LGBT+ individuals living under the religious dictatorship of her homeland, The Ministry of Guidance is nominated for the Polari Book Prize [for overall Book of the Year, excluding debuts], and she read pieces from several of them for our delectation. Here's an edited extract from An Evening of Martyrdom, revolving around a secretive gay party, gathering on the same night as the "Mourning of Muharram" [an important Shia commemoration], which I found particularly impressive:

...As a result of smoking, drinking and nibbling, Hasti's lip gloss had come off and Mina found her unpainted lips with their natural, meaty colour even more appealing. She was already sniffing the scent of her neck when Hasti grabbed her right hand and murmured, "Let's go". Mina did not know where, but followed her nonetheless.

Hasti and Mina were walking in a narrow corridor with orange wallpaper, hand in hand. Hasti a few steps ahead, leading Mina. Mina's nostrils were on Hasti's nape, sniffing its strange scent, which Mina concluded smelt like her dead mother: a mixture of cigarette smoke and spicy cologne, resulting in a smell of burnt trees, which she relished. She sensed her next painting would be a forest on fire. She knew Hasti was taking her to Omid's bedroom, at the end of the long corridor. Suddenly she felt in love with the existence of this corridor, which connected Omid's living room to his bedroom, separating her and Hasti from the rest of the party. It was indeed the best thing that could exist in a house, and probably the world...

...Hasti pushed her onto the bed. Mina pushed her back. "I need to tell you something," murmured Mina... "This is my first time."...

Mina was pleased that Hasti was 'turned on' by her confession and not taken aback. Hasti's cold fingers started running all over her body. Mina closed her eyes and let herself tremble on Omid's single bed...

...for some reason she could not talk. She was breathing heavily and the only thing she cared about was her heavenly wetness and Hasti's wet mouth. Hasti's fingers were inside her and Mina was writhing on the dark bed trying her best not to scream.

The door opened, and she felt blinded by the orange corridor and the figure of someone she didn't recognise in her inebriation, orgasm and the dark.

"The neighbours have called the police," the figure said, her voice quiet and quivering.

After three erotic tales in a row, it was time for a well-deserved cigarette. After the break, it was time for the annual award ceremony - and to announce the shortlists for the two coveted Polari Prizes, the aforementioned Kate Davies and the cute-as-a-button "slam poet" Keith Jarrett took to the stage.

The titles shortlisted for the £2000 Polari Prize are:

  • The Ministry of Guidance and other stories (Golnoosh Nour, Muswell Press)
  • Dragman (Steven Appleby, Jonathan Cape)
  • The Air Year (Caroline Bird, Carcanet)
  • What Girls Do in the Dark (Rosie Garland, Nine Arches Press)
  • The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle (Neil Blackmore, Windmill)
  • No Modernism Without Lesbians (Diana Souhami, Head of Zeus)

The works shortlisted for the £1000 Polari First Book Prize are:

  • Rainbow Milk (Paul Mendez, Dialogue Books)
  • Forced Out (Kevin Maxwell, Granta)
  • A Dutiful Boy (Mohsin Zaidi, Vintage)
  • Swimming in the Dark (Tomasz Jędrowski, Bloomsbury)
  • Shuggie Bain (Douglas Stuart, Picador)
  • Charred (Andreena Leeanne, Team Angelica).

Speaking of Mr Jarrett, guess who was next to take the stage?

With a particularly pithy set of backdrop photos, he read a few of his often hard-hitting, always excellent poems - including this one [just after he'd explained that it was indeed true: a UKIP councillor did claim that the floods that hit the UK in 2014 were as a result of equal marriage legislation!]:

As the lovely Keith departed the stage, so the whole evening took a completely different direction, and Paul B proudly introduced not one, but two of the greatest showbiz divas of all time to the stage!

In reality, of course, it was the creation of two stars of musical theatre Helen Sheals and Emma Dears - whose show Judy and Liza relaunched at the first post-lockdown Brighton Fringe this summer. Heavens! They were fab.

A smattering of the classics were all ticked off: Together, Wherever We Go, the famous Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy medley, the Man That Got Away, Liza with a Z, Cabaret - and a very clever medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Maybe This Time that was truly stupendous! I loved it.

As the stardust settled to the floor, there was just time for the customary curtain-call - and that was it for another sublime evening...

We love Polari!


  1. How lucky of you to have such events. Our clubs are not nearly so sophisticated. If (when) I come visit, I am going to check out Heaven. Such class. This evening you've described? My idea of Heaven. Kizzes

    1. Heaven, when it is actually operating as a club, as opposed to hosting a literary event, is as manic and hedonistic as any other venue of such a size.

      I've been there as a clubber and I had a good time, but I didn't feel it was anything particularly special (I'd been to better clubs) - however when it first emerged in the late '70s/early '80s, it was easily the biggest and most impressive gay disco London had ever seen... Jx

  2. Looks like your life is finally getting back to normal - good to see!

    1. I feel a sense of relief that, with the vaccination roll-out being as successful as it has been, things can be a bit more relaxed and less edgy - although I still remain resolutely masked and socially distanced when mingling or travelling to and from such evenings out. We are beginning to turn the corner towards a future when coronavirus can be treated in the same way as flu, methinks, with annual vaccines and a bit of sensible cautionary behaviour... Jx

  3. Replies
    1. Shame you couldn't be there - if only for the Judy & Liza show! Jx


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