Polari Speech – Part One
I rarely write from a gay perspective because I don’t feel that my sexuality has any claim over what I write, so the idea of being a ‘gay writer’ has always felt less applicable than ‘a writer who happens to be gay’, just as an actor’s choice of roles isn’t dependent on his or her sexuality. But I wondered if my youthful outsider status might have had some kind of effect on the way I saw the world.
So last week I gave a talk at the annual ‘Polari’ South Bank literary event, a night of readings in a venue overlooking the London Eye, and since then a number of attendees have asked me if I would publish the piece on this site. It’s too long for that, so I’ve removed a number of the lengthier chunks to make it more manageable and am publishing it in two parts. It was about youth, writing & London.
‘The last time I appeared here I came on after a young slam-poet who not only thrilled me; he left me wondering if I had anything relevant to say. There I was making obscure postwar jokes while someone came on and spoke eloquently from the heart about today. So tonight I want to inspire you about London writing. First let’s take stock of where we are, in a small Northern country in a medium-sized transverse city built around a switchback river. Thanks to the fact that it set the world’s time zones it’s very rich, like Venice and Constantinople once had been. For its bankers, the working day is 17 hours long, so more money can be made.
It’s not the city I grew up in, and it won’t be yours. It’s fast and will be faster. It’s also changeless. We think of ourselves as connected and informed. Two weeks ago a national poll found that of 2,000 randomly selected adults in employment, 59% couldn’t name the current prime minister. That’s about the same as in the late 18th century. How do we inspire these people? Do they even read or go to the movies? Well, young and old do, males in their middle years don’t because they work. It’s that simple. Further up the social scale this changes and the arts replace sport until you get right to the top, where it reverses again. London’s creative community is mainly drawn from the educated classes. The widening wealth gap means that the arts are for those with time and money.
These are very broad generalisations, but they should be considered. So we need to write about common points of interest. Luckily the inspiration for that is right beneath our feet. London is one of the few European cities without an Old Quarter. This is because London had constant change forced on it for centuries, from the Great Fire to the Industrial Revolution, from the Blitz to the banking system. And paradoxically, because of this rolling program of change it didn’t appear to change at all.
Those who built London thought about it in the long term. Here’s a good example. Westminster Hall dates from 1393 and has the largest timber roof in northern Europe. When it needed restoring in 1913 a lot of the wood needed replacing. But where do you find such giant trees? It turned out that the original timbers came from Wadhurst in Sussex. The estate’s owners realized that new wood would be needed in about 520 years’ time so they planted a stand of oaks for that purpose. By 1913 they were ready to be cut and used, and the hall was repaired. Today the City of London’s new skyscrapers are reckoned to have a shelf life of about 15 years.
So London‘s pace of change accelerates, but we remain Londoners, because London is a spiritual state. We don’t make London, London makes us. We’ve only been here for 5 minutes before we’re standing our ground while apologizing for being in the way. And London reflects us back, especially in our writing. This is taken from a speech by a young man about to die:
‘Farewell, all you good boys in merry London!
Ne’er shall we more on Shrove Tuesday meet,
And pluck down houses of iniquity,
I shall never more hold open, while another pumps, both legs.
I die. Fly, fly my soul to Grocers’ Hall.’
That’s from ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’, performed a few hundred yards from here in 1609. The play was written by a 24 year-old, and is the first play to make its heroes working class and to break the fourth wall, involving the audience. Those were rebellious, licentious, appalling times, and the young playwright reflected this.
The best way to write about any place or group of people is to see it from outside. Colin Wilson was 24 and living on Hampstead Heath when he wrote ‘The Outsider’ in 1956. At exactly the same time Colin MacInnes was writing ‘Absolute Beginners’, taking as his subjects urban squalor, racial tension, homosexuality, drugs, anarchy, and the new decadence. Oddly enough, Noel Coward was also 24 when he wrote ‘The Vortex’, about nymphomania and drug addiction. He became London’s bad boy, upsetting the old order by being interviewed in his dressing gown and smoking what people wrongly took to be opium.
So you’d think that now, 24 year-old writers would have even more to say, wouldn’t you? Especially gay London writers.
Try Googling ‘gay London writers’. What comes up first is a group called ‘Gay London Writers’. They were formed in 1993 and stopped meeting in 2009. After that there’s a mention of the Polari literary nights, and then the Samaritans helpline. We’ve been so assimilated into the mainstream that even search engines can’t find us. We got what we wanted. Our desires were legislated, our marches turned into parties, our private places became public, our secrets became national conversation, our style was adopted by all. Last week I went into a straight bar in Islington and found myself surrounded by hipsters dressed as gay lumberjacks in checked shirts and beards. It looked like 1983 was back. The gay people had been given a number and told to go sit with everyone else. Job done.
Except that writers are still outsiders. I watch TV commercials and see housewives still discussing toilet cleaners. That world, there, with the 2.4 children and trips to Centerparcs is the alien outside world to me. It’s like watching Martians or Top Gear. Gay people can get married now. I got married. We can be sold stuff like anyone else. We’re not pariahs, we’re a socio-economic demographic. So we stopped writing about being different even though we may think differently. For gay writers London is now about inclusion, not exclusion, acceptance, not exception. So what can we write about? Well, this is where it gets interesting.
First, there’s history. Recently there was a film called ‘Pride’. I was at the Bell pub for the miners’ fundraiser, and on some of the marches, and I thought the film was incredibly accurate, but it failed at the box office. A young woman called Elise Nakhnikian writing for the hipster American magazine Slant had this to say; ‘It’s depressingly ordinary dreck. A Disney movie bloated with swelling music, healing hugs and hearty handshakes, suspiciously eloquent speeches, and bigotry smacked down by smug liberal pieties.’ Presumably Elise wasn’t old enough to be there and didn’t realise its importance, and she certainly doesn’t understand Londoners.
‘Pride’ was about gay history, even if its subject matter was censored on US posters. In the same way, a play called ‘The Boys In The Band’ by Mart Crowley opened in 1968 off-Broadway and ran for over 1,000 performances. Before this no-one had ever written a play with only gay characters. It was described as a landmark piece about acceptance and self-denial, and proved groundbreaking. But as the seventies progressed it was vilified for its self-loathing attitude, particularly as it contained lines like ‘Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.’. The world moved on and sexual variety became just another element of urbanization. The play’s bitchy partygoers caught in the pre-liberation closet no longer reflected our lives, and the dialogue eventually wound up in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’.
Let’s skip to the 1970s. In the film version of Joe Orton’s play ‘Loot’, Hal and his lover Dennis have sex with a traffic warden in the back of a hearse in order to avoid a parking ticket. The satisfied warden says ‘I’ve a son your age. I’ll bring him around next time for a foursome.’ The scene tramples so many taboos in the space of 20 seconds it’s a wonder the film wasn’t banned, but nobody turned a hair. The line wasn’t added by Joe Orton but by Galton & Simpson, who wrote ‘Steptoe & Son’. That was a real moment of change, and it passed unheralded.
To me, it’s not the portrayal of explicit sex that’s edgy, it’s the expression of outsider thinking. Are there still unusual, original thinkers? I suspect that the peer pressure of social networks is levelling us out a bit. Originality develops in isolation. You can’t be too strange when you’re telling everyone what you’re doing all the time. Perhaps it’s just a blip. After all, Facebook, that mirror of our vanities, is already eleven years old. How do we get originality back? How can we write about our city?
London’s personality matches its weather. It’s perverse, willful, confusing and unsettling, filled with atmospheres. It fights you back, dares you to try and have a good time. It’s perennially popular because, according to the Planning Officer of the City of London, it is here that young people come to have sex.
Perhaps that wasn’t what Dickens had in mind when he wrote about London, but there’s truth in it; the city has a side that’s rebellious and disreputable, so of course it appeals to the young, the very people who kick-start new ideas into us all. London is also the home of the nefarious; gay crimes start long before London became known as Sodom-on-Thames, from the bizarre tragi-comedy of Dr Crippen and his cross-dressed mistress to poor overexploited Oscar. London suits stories with an element of the macabre, the camp, the tragic or grotesque because it has characters. That was Dicken’s greatest secret; if you create indelible characters the rest falls into place. People are strange.
Decriminalization didn’t stop gay crimes, so where are the gay crime thrillers? It’s important to remind people that we’re here. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder; it makes people think you’re dead.
In my head there’s another London where every fictional character from every London book and film lives, so that the Droogs still maraud through Thamesmead, Mr Sloane strokes his tanned torso beside the Oasis pool, the sinister Professor Marcus knocks on a door in King’s Cross, Julian and Sandy mince up the King’s Road, and Bob Hoskins tells his American colleagues, ‘I’m a businessman and what’s more, I’m a Londoner.’ Even the title of this salon, ‘Polari’, was popularized by a 1960s radio show. Old wine fits in new bottles.
Everyone’s experience of London is different. When he was asked about the history of London last year, an unnamed 17 year-old boy said, with perfect teenaged confidence; ‘It begins with me. It ends with me.’ So my London is not yours – my memory begins when Leicester Square still had traffic pounding around it, when the rent-boys ran Piccadilly and camp ruled the airwaves, so that Kenneth Williams, playing an elderly gay trapeze artist, could say ‘I’m just showing my young apprentice a couple of new wrinkles’ and got a laugh from families not yet oversensitised by the horrors of Jimmy Saville.
Writers create their own London, and what we seem to be very good at is rebuilding it as an imaginary state, from the surreal gothic of King’s Cross in ‘The Ladykillers’ to South London looking positively Mediterranean in ‘Beautiful Thing’. It’s a tricky balance, creating a fantastical London. It has to be both recognisable and one step away from reality. The film ‘Paddington’ had rain, pigeons and grey skies, but also a bit of drag, and a heartfelt London message; in a city where everyone is different, everyone can fit in. There was even a cheeky gay joke at the start, when the explorer names a species of bear ‘after an exotic boxer I met in a bar one night’.
When you reimagine London like this it all gets sparklier and more colourful, the kind of London tourists want to find, and if you go too far into Richard Curtis land you end up in a place where people still use red phone boxes and everyone has a nanny, and we all live in white stucco £5 million houses in Pimlico, in a city that doesn’t have a rapacious Mayor with no morals, a city as we would perhaps secretly like to see it, the London of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Harry Potter’.
If you’re not sure that’s true, take a walk through King’s Cross station, and see the immense line that’s there night and day, where people from all over the world queue up to have selfies taken with their hands on half a baggage trolley sticking out of a wall. They want to believe in the fantasy of London, the London of ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Dr Who’, a pastiche that’s recognisable but nicer – and therefore more fun to subvert.’
The concluding part follows tomorrow.