Polari Speech – Part Two
This is the concluding part of my speech at the Southbank Centre last week. It has been shortened, but the most salient points are here.
‘In the opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ there’s an orchestral scene that’s traditionally awkward to stage, when the children are lost in the woods and protected by angels. In a production I once saw, Hansel and Gretel’s wood was a London park, and the children were protected by classic authority figures, milkmen and lollipop ladies and constables who guarded them through the night. This is the London that Mayor Boris Johnson attempted to invoke by bringing back bus conductors. But it’s a surface nostalgia; scratch it and all you find underneath is private property, not public good.
However there is an idea of London ripe for reclaiming; the city as an adventure playground full of stories. As you read, you need to feel you might discover something wonderful around the next corner, as sometimes – just once in a while – you do, and it makes you feel special. London has places which are unique to each of us. To start with, there’s the inverted city beneath our feet. Our relationship to the underground is complex; you would think that after numerous fires, acts of terrorism and bombs we’d be wary of stepping below the pavements. Instead, I find the reverse to be true; it makes me feel safe and warm because it’s full of people. Watch the 1928 film ‘Underground’ and you’ll see how many stories it can contain.
Until the 1970s, basements and attics were central to London life. I remember visiting an oyster bar underneath Piccadilly Circus, a genuine Tudor garret in Soho, and rooms made available to impoverished writers. London always loved its clubs. In the Troy Club, Manzi’s and Eileen’s you’d be given drinks by the owners just to stay and be bohemian. They were the opposite of guilds and masonic lodges. They sought to encourage disorder, anarchy, drinking, gambling and promiscuity.
London thrived on being furtive. The mistresses of Henry VIII tripped through secret passages, and the strip club girls of Soho ushered punters downstairs into ‘near beer’ traps they had to pay to get out of. The bars were gaudy little dumps with red velvet curtains and tiny dance floors. They had names like the Rockingham, the Sombrero and Chaguaramas, and were entered by venturing down subsiding staircases. These atmospheric worlds vanished, but London rooms still host esoteric events. Upstairs in the Princess Louise in Holborn, the Dracula Society fell out with the Vampire Club; one lot were Darwinians, the others were Goths. The Handlebar Moustache Society still meets in the Windsor Castle just off the Edgware Road, which is worth a visit just to see its insane décor. There are still clubs for any London tribe you can name. London’s new wealth means it’s all changing again, so Madame Jo-Jo’s closes, and The Yard is next, and the last few West end spots where you can actually meet are being snapped up by developers.
But for writers, none of this matters; we can build anything we want. We’re not quite so obliged to document social issues as we were in the eighties. And if we do, we’re perhaps not as honest and naïve as we once were. Four years ago there was an excellent London film called ‘Weekend’, a naturalistic love story about a couple of 20-something guys. Its star, Chris New, was praised for his spontaneous energy and off-the-cuff improvised dialogue. He was my next-door neighbour, and I saw him having a violent altercation, naked on his balcony, with my other neighbours. One year later I saw him perform the exact same scene in the film. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that social issue stories are any less manipulative than whimsical ones. If they’re honest, they’ll work.
Crime fiction accounts for over a third of all fiction published in English. They’re whimsical constructs, devices for torquing tension, withholding information and springing surprises. Every month dozens of crime novels appear that promise us new levels of realism, when they actually supply the reverse. We’ll happily believe that the murder rate in Morse’s Oxford equals that of Mexico City if the author keeps a straight face. Tony Hancock once said; ‘People take you more seriously when you don’t get laughs.’ And people like categories. They put ‘funny’ in one box and ‘serious’ in another. They don’t like change. But London changes and changes.
How much it has changed is almost impossible to comprehend. Once the Thames was an open sewer, and mere proximity to it was enough to kill you. In 1849 Charles Kingsley described the environment of Bermondsey residents; ‘the water stagnates, and is full of dead fish, cats and dogs, right under their windows.’ Once, children worked in factories on the riverbanks, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned bright green. Now the canals are home to swans and herons, and you can run their length in lycra to your art college in King’s Cross, if you can afford it. We’ll never again name our streets Gropecunt Lane or Shit-born Alley; we’ll call our new housing developments Number One Midtown and put in poor-doors and homeless spikes. In search of the real London we avoid the tourist fakery of Camden and head for Dalston, Spittalfields, Whitechapel. Like Morrissey, we all secretly like a bit of rough. And, like midnight foxes we adapt, sliding between worlds without losing our own identities.
How much have we adapted? At the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial, one newspaper suggested that decent men were being driven into the arms of boys because their wives were too busy being feminists and everything would go back to normal if they returned to making jam. Three months ago, when Oscar’s, the last gay porn cinema in King’s Cross closed down, its frontage wasn’t hurriedly buried in an attempt to prove it never existed. It was lovingly installed on the wall of the straight pub opposite. It’s this new warmth, this knowingness, what you could call ‘The Paddington effect’, where we’re comfortable enough to let everyone in on the joke, that interests me, because it opens up inclusive ways of portraying Londoners and telling fresh stories. These seeds were sewn in the sixties but withered in the eighties, and now it seems they’ve finally blossomed.
We’ve had sixty years of novels, plays and films dealing with gay issues from blackmail and youth rebellion to plague and sex addiction. Our films went from kitchen sink dramas to fantasies. We’ve gone from ‘Queer As Folk’ shocking the nation to ‘Cucumber’ barely raising an eyebrow, because ‘Queer As Folk’ was about an exclusive subset of British life, and ‘Cucumber’ is about having the same doubts and fears as everyone else. Even the giant ‘Cucumber’ poster went unremarked upon. In London, different is now normal.
Was it better before? Was it better to stand out than to become invisible? Possibly from the point of view of creativity. When you’re an outlaw, your observations are often more original. One of my favourite London novels is ‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron. It’s the story of a man and the East End. The life of one explains the other, and I cried at the end. Some London writers work you hard, making you climb higher to get a better view, until you’re no longer content with what you see on the ground.
Once here in London sexuality was criminalised, books were banned and films were censored. Now it’s hard to be outrageous when your audience is unshockable. A friend of mine staged an extremely explicit one-man show at the ICA in front of his parents. Afterwards, his mother said; ‘Which part of that did you think was daring, dear?’
So we don’t shock, we entertain and inform. You may choose to write about the city of your childhood or the city of tomorrow. You can choose whatever you want, because your books, your plays, your paintings, your music, your films will be about you, and how you see the city is how it really is. You won’t change London. But you can excite readers with your stories because it’s all about your perspective. And as for London’s history, remember that teenager; It begins with you. It ends with you.’