scribbles from a Polari Writing Workshop – on happiness, anger, change, and love

 

Today I had an opportunity to speak out some creative writing jottings in a fun and rather fantabulosa workshop run by Polari literary salon hosts Paul Burston and VG Lee, with a bunch of West Midlands aspiring writers. I stumbled through reading aloud, to the background of a clanging radiator, and in the setting of the Birmingham Lesbian And Gay Centre cafe/kitchen. Here are some of the scribblings, though none have reached a status of a ‘work in progress’. Just exercises on themes. Don’t judge me.

happiness

Skippy* came again last night. It’s the first time I saw her eating the biscuits I put out. She appeared bang on midnight, like Cinderella running home from the ball.Our eyes met, and she half scowled, half grinned. I never know with her. The fireworks have made her all skittish and flighty.

Then the alarms went off. Was that you, mischievous Skippy? And then you were gone.

The alarms were still going off when I left this morning, and you presumably lay dreaming with the biscuits heavy in your belly.

Anger

So I was expecting that this wouldn’t be a problem, turning up here, and then I came across you and your standoffishness and snotty insensitive attitude. It’s a routine medical procedure, and you seem surprised that I didn’t carry round the make and model of my heart valve.. “Isn’t that in my medical records?” I ask, as politely as I can. “If it was me, I’d want to know what was in my body.” It’s not you, and you’ve no idea what I’ve been through. I feel told off and I only turned up for a bloody MRI.

And then I get told the scan won’t happen because you don’t have the details. THEY’RE IN MY RECORDS! just …. have a look. Or ring the Cardiology Unit. I’LL DO IT FOR YOU.

I get my coat, and I’m off. Fuck you very much. FUCK YOU VERY MUCH!

And then the anger quietens, and I begin forming plans, and complaints, and ways forward. And I thank you, you bastard. Because I survived my surgery to spite bastards like you.

A moment of change

London. You big, scary, beautiful, exciting tart. I’ve run away from you every time before. I’ve felt the panic, and my head was swimming with noise and chatter, and I became small and ran away.

But tonight, it’s a New Year. There are lights and crowds and a friend walking beside me. And I can see your lifeblood, that river, and all of a sudden it sparkles with adventure and promise.

I’m no longer scared. I’m going to embrace you, for all your largesse and danger and pigeons and tubes and cockerney villains, and all those people I know here, and all those people I may get to know here.

Hello, London.

Love

It’s soppy and dirty and infectious and sudden and hard and forever and gone in the blink of an eye.It’s me and you and them and him.

It’s Saturday night and Monday morning, births,deaths and marriages, the in-laws and the out-laws.

It’s words and songs and films and books and plays.

It’s murder and hate and war and unfair. It will kill you and it will save you. Protect me from its cruel deceit, and give me more, more, more.

It’s hard to put into words.

 

*Skippy is my local neighbourhood fox. This was her first public appearance.

I was lucky to catch Polari on tour. Troll along to their website to find out more.

For more on Cinderella and polari, varda my previous blog

 

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st dezzie jarman, fluffy bunnies & being ‘halfway there’ to an equal age of consent

Derek-Jarman

It’s 20 years ago since we were ‘halfway’ to an equal age of consent for gay men. Back in the day, when I went courting with gentlemen callers, it was mandatory that you were both at least 21 if you wanted to stick any part of your body in any part of another guy’s body, and you could only do it then in a locked room with the lights out and making sure you didn’t wake the neighbours or scare the cats. That was THE LAW.
I was part of a generation who thought it really shouldn’t be like that. We felt we should be treated the same as str8 people(who weren’t normal, just common), and that it was about bloody time the law changed to be on our side. Back then. not many people agreed. Politicians and the Press thought it was an outrageous idea, and somehow the whole idea for an equal age of consent at 16 got caught up in an ammendment to the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 by Sir Anthony Durrant proposing a compromise age of consent for gay men at 18.’Halfway there’ as someone announced after the vote took place.

It wasn’t, of course, and on February 21 a peaceful vigil at the Houses of Parliament erupted into a bit of a riot, with police having to lock the doors to the Place Of Westminster as as 5,000 well behaved homos went from singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ a bunch of Very Stroppy Queens.
A few days previously, on February 19th, filmmaker and activist Derek Jarman died from HIV related illness. He’s been in the news a fair bit over the last few days, as there’s a rather nice South Bank retospective of him and his work, which is long overdue.
I first met Derek when the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence were invited to take part in his film Edward II. He wanted some contemporary resonances for the film, and thought activists like us and OutRage might illustrate some of the current political tensions around sexuality.The Sisters – men in nun’s habits – were an image Jarman couldn;t resist. One of his assistants cornered me at the Black Cap pub in London when we were out on the town in our habits, and I agreed on behalf of us all. As it happens, we were looking any excuse for for an opportunity to honour Derek Jarman with a canonisation.Preferably while he was still alive and kicking.

We got bussed out to the film studios with Outrage, and right from the get-go Derek was very welcoming and also slightly mischievous. He told me he’d seen Cliff Richrd ‘looking like a chestnut’ in the canteen, and suggested it might be fun for OutRage to pay him a visit as he was rehearsing there. When they did so, it all became a bit of a scandal and was reported as an ‘outing’ attempt with 30 nuns blowing trumpets after interrupting Cliff in rehearsal and shouting ‘Come out of the closet Cliff and declare yourself a full blown homosexual!’

Derek (Dezzie as I took to calling him) invited the Siters to watch the rushes from the day’s filming, ad I popped the question to him then on whether he’d consider becoming our fist Saint. He was utterly, utterly delighted, but also very humbled, and immediately begand thinking about what to wear and where it would happen – ‘you can come to Dungeness!’ he said.

So plans were put in place, and in 1991 a party of Sisters turned up at his bona lattie in Dungeness with a yellow inflatable banana, a cuddly toy and a glass hospital bedpan to declare him as St Derek of Dungeness of the Order Of Celluloid Knights. He wore a necklace made of pictures of cockrings, and a glamourous gown from Edward II, made tea for us all and seemed to have a fine time. He took great pleasure showing us his garden, and posing for pictures for an enthusiastic local media. The service was all conducted in the gay slang language polari.

From time time, we bumped into each other at gay activism events like the Opening of the Soho Carnival and he was always rather a giggle, and genuinely enthusiastic about the good works of the Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence, and his own responsibilities in Promulgating Universal Joy and Expiating Stigmatic Guilt.

He died a couple of days before the vote on the Age Of Consent in 1994, and it is said his last words were that he wanted the world to be full of fluffy binny rabbits. I don;t believe hat for a moment as he struck me as a lot more ballsy and rebellious than that.

Parliament finally created an Equal Age Of Consent in 2001.

Refs:
A fuller account of the Age Of Consent ‘riot’ can be found in my book ‘OutRage!: An Oral History’ (Cassell, 1998)
A fuller account of the canonisation of Derek Jarman can be found in the chapter ‘ The Color Of His Eyes’ in Queerly Phrased ed A Livia & K Hall, (OUP, 1997)

Now Was Not Like That Then

outrage impertinent decorum growing up positive

Once upon a time, in a universe far away, I landed my first writing contract. It was all terribly exciting. Getting a real book into print, ad being commissioned. I was a post-grad student terribly excited by ‘gay theatre’ and ‘gay drama’,  the new ‘queer politics’ that had emerged in the 1990s and which seemed to inhabit different areas of my life – politics, friendships, relationships, culture. I was in the process of trying to make sense of all this when Cassell started its own pioneering ‘queer studies’ publications list, and I was invited to be in the first round of authors to contribute. My research enthusiastically – and probably, naively – coalseced around an idea of ‘gay theaterical manoeuvres’ – the notion that sexual identities are created through our body, our language, and the spaces we inhabit/invade. A clumsy, but idealistic way, to try and marry some of my lived experience as a young queer writer and activist following a backlash from the AIDS crisis, and new(re-emerging) prejudices and homophobia. No equal age of consent, no equal marriage, no gays in the military, no ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.

What strides, what leaps there have been since then. And, for me, that book – Impertinent Decorum – was published in 1990, and I was then  offfered a second commission, for a collection of oral histories on the theme of ‘Young people and HIV/AIDS ‘- an area I was doing work in as a dramatist, activist, and writer.  I got the opporunity to write another book, and to sit and listen to many inspiring life stories. ‘It’s like talking to a counsellor’, one of them told me. Which is what I also eventually became.

My third commission from the same supportive editor/publisher was to document the rise and history of the direct action group we both belonged to, OutRage! I had lots of chats, listened to a whole load of gosssip and rarguments, from people I barely knew and people I knew well – ‘including ‘the busiest gay man in London’. Even then, we found we were looking back at a world that was changing and disappearing, hence the title of my introduction to the book ‘Now Was Not Like That Then’, after a comment from a vociferous anti-gay contributor on a television talk show. Much of the time we were being vindicated and ‘str8’ society was coming round to a rather more liberal  (or assimiliationist) vision of ‘equality’. It wasn’t exactly the ‘Queer’ agenda we’d started off with, but if that got the police to investigate homophobic murders rather than hanging round toilets trying to entrap gay mean, it seemed an imporvement. OutRage! was published in 1998, at a time when the organisation itself was changing and diminshing, but before the real impact of its arguments and campaigns saw fruition. Many will argue that OutRage’s direct action was counter-productive and it was the more measured politicking of groups like Stonewall that were responsible for the change.Wotevs.

It was kind of exhausting  wirting non-fiction about things I felt so strongly about. Writing the books was a way for me to re-imagine, but also to record, what was happening around me. After those books, I took to greater flights of fancy with queerotica and sci-fi. But it was glorious to have a commision, and to have space, simply to write,with a supportive publisher backing me.

As with gay rights, publishing has moved on and Now Was Not Like That Then. My publisher was acquired by a much larger publisher, so I find myself strangely housed within the Giant Halls of Bloomsbury, who have recently confirmed that they will be e-publishing those early books. E-publishing! My edior and I talked about such a thing in the 1990s and we both thought there might be something in it, but at the time the publishers themselves weren’t so convinced. All that business about licenses and formats seemed too complicated. So I continued to take a train down to That There London and the gleaming and daunting publishing houses, with a big fat print-out opf my latest 200 page book, Ofcourse, I LOVED going down to the Big City with a physical print-out of my latest  book. It was so …. heavy and impressive. And, even better, to get the print copies or proof-copies through the pose, so I could hold MY BOOK in my hands. Mmm, Precious ….

I still write. Mostly, these now get e-published in the first instance. Which is equally exciting, for me, but it’s rarer to go to a bookshop in Vancouver or wherever I travel and find one of my books on the shelf. But, for me, those first three titles remind me of the many thoughts, conversations, arguments and struggles of a young writer. I’m welcoming their return, and hope I can forgive myself the mistakes which will be so evident to me today.

My first published words were It’s Cool To Be An Artichoke which have also been quoted in the blog. Recently, professional footballer  Thomas Hitzlsperger and Olympian Tom Daley have come out. Moves are foot for equal marriage. Now was not like that then. Later today, I have an appointment with a space station. Funny where your writing and (re) imagination can take you …

I’ve zhooshed my riah

That’s your actual polari for hair cut. Or getting your knob shaved. It’s been a big thing. When I was planning for surgery, I was booking a haircut beforehand, just to feel a little better about myself in hospital. I might look pale, scarred and bloodied, with tubes and drips and canulas, but at least my hair would be FABULOUS.

Hair. It’s such a strong part of identity. My neighbour was upset at losing his while undergoing chemotherapy. Understandably. And he’s not anywhere near as vain as me.

I’ve been a skinhead, been bright red, bright blond, highlighted, lowlighted,  had an 80s mullet, short back and sides, tied my hair with a band at the top so I looked like I had a fountain on my head. I’m even going grey. I mean, becoming a silver fox.

I’ve used clippers on my own hair, had stylists and an old fashioned barber with a cut throat razor. Some styles have looked great, some I now admit look awful.

Yesterday, I visited the Intensive Care Unit I was in 3 weeks ago. I was delivering chocolates as a thank you to the doctors and nurses (you have to give two lots – one for night staff, one for day staff – otherwise there’s war.) We joked about me obsessing about my hair while I was drugged up and vomiting before my operation.

This time, I was able to walk in to the ward, and I was able to walk out. As I walked out, after all the compliments on my progress, and all the thanks for the 2 weeks of hospital care, and the giving and receiving of chocolate, one of the nurses shouted after me

‘AND GET YOUR HAIR CUT!’

I’m feeling a little something like my old self.

Polari – A Cinderella Among Languages

Don’t be strange – troll in and have a varda at my new insertion on the gay slang language of polari:  Polari – A Cinderella Among Languages. There’s a bit of bespangled history and a glossary to amaze your dearest beancoves with. It’s  been kept vigorously alive by omipalones such as Queen of the Polari Bette Bourne, and was made (in)famous by the two camp BBC Radio stalwarts of Round The Horne, Julian and Sandy.

 

In the meantime, let me serenade you with a bona polari busker‘s song. You can join in if you like:

 

Nantee dinarlee: The omee of the carsey
Says due bionc peroney, manjaree on the cross
We’ll have to scarper the jetty in the morning,
Before the bonee omee of the carsey shakes his doss
.
– Polari busker’s song

 

It loses a little in translation, but is basically an entreaty to push off pretty quickly because the landlord’s after the rent and we don’t have any money … and by rent I mean money for lodgings and not the gay slang for … well, you see, this is where it gets complicated. Nish the chat and varda the colour of his eyes ….