With the mad social whorl of the past few days - the amazing Bowie Prom on Friday rapidly followed by the excesses of my dear sister's fiftieth birthday party last night - it's taken a while to get my head together. However, on Thursday evening I did also troll along to the sunny South Bank for the latest instalment of "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari...
Before opening proceedings our host Mr Paul Burston had some sad news to impart - his mother-in-law, Paolo's dear mum Heidi (who I first met back in 2013) recently died. Such a lovely woman. RIP.
However, the show - dedicated to her - must go on, and thus Mr B introduced our first guest.
Stevan Alcock, making a very welcome return to Polari, read a rather fab passage from his acclaimed debut novel - and Polari First Book Prize nominee - Blood Relatives, which tells the tale of Ricky, growing up gay in Leeds in the 70s against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Although the passage he read (brilliantly) described his teenage protagonist's trepidation as he hovers in a pub prior to attending a typically earnest 70s gay group meeting upstairs, then to his horror encounters by chance a school friend at the bar just as the out-gay punters start arriving, I can't find that extract online. Instead, here is Mr Alcock reading the introductory passage from the novel - written as it is read, in the Yorkshire dialect...
Next up was a Polari "newbie", crime-writer Sarah Hilary, who read (as she had promised) a somewhat chilling scene-setting passage from her new work Tastes Like Fear that described the sinister scenario of a disparate group of young girls, a "family of photo-booth-ready dolls, smooth hair down to their waists, new tits under neat shirts", all of them trapped in the mysterious web of a man called "Harm". What's going on? What is his hold over them? What is going to be their fate? I really should read the novel to find out...
However, all thoughts of crime, murder and mystery evaporated with the arrival on stage of the utterly marvellous Mr James Maker (Polari First Prize winner for his autobiography Autofellatio in 2011)! Heaven knows what his plans are for the story he read for us - my vote would be for a television soap-opera-cum-comedy. Set around a small gated community in Spain (the country where until recently Mr Maker was an ex-pat), he introduced a stream of increasingly uproarious camp characters - from the pretentious gay couple hosting the party at which everyone was gathering, one a hysterical mess, the other a dull lothario, to the demandingly snooty wannabe-matriarch of the estate, to whip-wielding estate agent, to the (inevitable) busy-body gossips and unhappily married couples that always inhabit such spaces. With his customarily droll delivery, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and quite hilarious scenario, and I look forward to finding out where it will lead...
Thus cheered, it was time for a fag and a top-up before making my way back to the Fifth Floor Function Room, for part two.
Before our final acts, it was time for VG (Val) Lee to take to the stage to announce the Polari First Book Prize 2016 shortlist. Now in its sixth year, the Prize is awarded annually to a writer whose first book explores the LGBT experience, whether in poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction. The six shortlisted titles are:
- Blood Relatives by Stevan Alcock
- Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin
- Trans by Juliet Jacques
- Different for Girls by Jacquie Lawrence
- Physical by Andrew McMillan
- The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
As Mr B said, it's a good job two of the night's readers (who were long-listed) made it to the shortlist, otherwise it may well have been embarrassing. Not least Juliet Jacques, opening part two. She was in fine fettle as she read one of her short stories, which focused on the S&M fantasies of a budding trans woman in Brighton, well, "Hove, actually":
The door felt heavy. As he entered he saw hangers of lingerie, red, black, white and soft pink, PVC nurses and maids’ uniforms, a bin full of eyeliner and lipstick. At the counter there were books and magazines: The Tranny Guide and Utterly Fabulous, with impossibly beautiful people on their covers. A middle-aged man stood behind them, his clean-shaven face caked in foundation, brown eyes with a little mascara on the lashes.Quite remarkable what happens in Suburbia...
“Can I help you?”
“Do you have any tickets for Divinity?”
“We’ve got a few.” Patrick noticed that the assistant’s hands were also shaved, with clear nail varnish. He moved his gaze to catch the assistant’s eyes. They smiled at each other.
“How many did you want?”
“£15, please. What are you going to wear?”
“I don’t know . . . I’ve got some heels, tights, a few dresses but I’m not sure they’re right. I was thinking of buying a wig. ”
“We’ve got plenty of those.”
Patrick saw stilettos, a room full of wigs on mannequin heads, some white boxes, open, with an array of false breasts, different sizes but all quite large, a few brown, mostly beige. He wondered if the silicone might feel nicer than cotton wool.
“What style were you after?”
“I don’t know . . . ”
“Hmm . . . I reckon light brown, not too long. Try these.”
Patrick tried a brown wig in front of the mirror.
“I think the blonde highlights brings out your eyes.”
“I love it,” said Patrick.
“Now you’ll need a dress.” The assistant shot him a smile. “Are you a top or a bottom?”
“Are you dominant, or submissive?”
Patrick said nothing.
“You look like a sub to me.”
“How can you tell?”
“You’re just a bit coquettish. Not rocket science, I know.”
“But I don’t want to tie myself to anything.”
“No, but you want someone else to tie you to something.”
They laughed awkwardly.
And finally, it was time for the very gorgeous John McCullough to round off the evening's entertainment. His first collection of poems The Frost Fairs won the Polari First Book Prize in 2012. His new collection of poems Spacecraft has, as he explained, nothing to do with space or sci-fi, but, according to the blurb "the white space of the page and the distance between people". Several use as their allegory Mr MucCullough's musings on the death of his first partner from an AIDS-related illness, not least this one:
In Minnesota, they reeled a sixty ton houseAnd with those emotions ringing in our ears, it was curtain-call time, and the end of the show.
over ice: a caught fish. The tow truck eased
forward, a steel cable stretched and quivered.
Walls crept. Why it sets me thinking of you
I can’t fathom. Who’d rescue your building –
split gutters, bleedings from oxidized pipes?
Still, I picture it skating, its porch nosing
the air. The house where you swallowed
your diagnosis. Where you phoned from, drunk.
It plunges through ice to the lake’s silty floor.
Brown water discovers its rooms.
Algae furs chairs and bedposts,
traces circles on ceilings – the loft crowded
with minnows, a wandering bass.
All excellent stuff - we adore Polari!
However, our next outing is not until (bizarrely) 7th October - lord alone knows why the lengthy hiatus - when the winner of the Polari First Book Prize will be announced, Paul himself will be reading from his own new crime novel The Black Path, and also on the bill will be Namita Chakrabarty, Alexis Gregory, North Morgan and Amy Acre.