Music Time: Saint Etienne

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Summer’s here, so who better than Saint Etienne, the best band in all the world!

And… I’ve finally(!) finalised my holiday reading (I am a natural ditherer):

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So, alongside Merce Rodereda and Elizabeth David which I wrote about earlier, I’ve also decided on an Agatha Christie which, last year, I found to be perfect holiday reading. Then a collection of short stories, ‘Pond’ by Claire-Louise Bennett. I loved Gwendoline Riley’s ‘First Love’ earlier this year and, just as my favourite writer, Shena Mackay, led me to Riley, I am hoping that Riley’s praise for Bennett in recent interviews will prove just as fruitful!

Mallorca, here I come!

 

Posted in Agatha Christie, Claire Louise Bennett, Elizabeth David, Gwendoline Riley, Merce Rodoreda, Music Time: Saint Etienne, Shena Mackay | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Psychometry of Tony Warren. Part Two

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I love books. I love the feeling of a book in your hand, the heft of the pages, the beauty of a cover. Even more I love a first edition, a signed first edition if you please. Why? Does it really bring me closer to the author, knowing that their fingers have pressed ink into this page, their sweat has permeated the absorbent paper, the absorbant paper of their firstborn (well, of this particular title, anyway)? Obviously, in a strict sense the answer is no and yet…Click here for part one of ‘The Psychometry of Tony Warren’

In ‘Behind Closed Doors’ Tony writes of a gay night out at the Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester in the 1950s:

‘Get a load of the willits on the palone with Peter Ladybird’. The night was alive with Polari. At Hulme Hippodrome you went straight from the street into the stalls bar. Almost as big and lofty as the theatre itself, the bar even had its own dress circle, a balcony which went round three sides of the room. Both levels featured men with adjusted hair colouring, And they were just the audience.’ 

Manchester, likes most cities, has always had a gay ‘scene’, and we can trace these gatherings back to at least the 19th century. For example, in 1880  the Temperance Hall in Hulme was raided by police, following a tip off that a Drag Ball was taking place. According to the officer in charge of the raid, he had gained admittance to the hall by whispering the password ‘Sister’ in an effeminate voice to the man behind the door who happened to  be dressed as a nun. Once inside he observed around 47 men, some smart, some rough, dressed as various historical figures, some male, some female, some dancing the can-can. Every so often men would enter an ante-room where unspecified indecencies were alleged to have taken place, all the while emitting squeals and talking loudly in effeminate voices. The organisers, who had set up the ball under the guise of ‘The Manchester Pawnbrokers Association’, protected the identities of the ball-goers by covering the windows in black paper and, in a stroke of genius, hired a blind accordion player to provide music. Everyone in attendance was arrested, but the magistrates were reluctant to take the matter further in case the scandal tarnished the good name of the city. All were bound over and released.

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Obviously, this event was way before Tony Warren’s time, but shows the lengths to which the homosexual underworld had go to meet and socialise and love and survive. In 2017 we have an open LGBTQ culture which lives and breathes in the daylight of acceptance, but we mustn’t forget the old ways, the culture which developed around those darker times, a culture which has emerged from the night and, like a dream have begun to fade. This is the culture which Tony Warren knew and which informed his writing, but it rarely accurately appears in accounts of LGBTQ history. We have accounts of the Molly Houses their denizens from the 17th century and lists of crimes and passion from the 19th century and beyond. But what was it like to partake in the common, down to earth LGBTQ culture of the mid to late 20th century?

By Tony’s time Manchester had a well established network of pubs and clubs. For the uninitiated, these were the things that dreams are made of, a veritable shangri-las, as Peter in ‘Behind Closed Doors’ thought:

‘He expected that once you got inside it would be exactly like the Café Royal in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oh yes, there’d be people sipping absinthe (whatever that was) beneath gilded Egyptian mirrors.’

And while there were such queer palaces in the world (usually the corner of a posh hotel, such as the Midland in Manchester where the owners turned a blind eye or a bar with ideas above it’s station, such as the Café Royal – also in Manchester) Peter knew no better and was actually dreaming about The Ogden Arms on Sackville Street in Manchester.

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The Ogden Arms would eventually become ‘The Rembrandt’, still standing in the heart of the village and epitomising the more usual gay boozer, alongside the New Union on the corner of Princess Street and Canal Street which was, for many years, the centre of the red light area.

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These places were not (and still aren’t) glamorous but they were heaven to those seeking sanctuary, a place to be yourself and be with others who understood because they were like you and,  unlike today with the internet and support groups and many, many more people being open and honest about their sexuality, were some of the very few places where this was possible. For many they also provided a place to hide…and if you go back to the Hulme Temperance Hall ball of 1880 it is interesting to note the black paper put on windows to stop people being identified – a situation which has continued until relatively recently. Rarely would you find a gay pub or club with clear glass windows, letting in the light. In fact, possibly the first gay bar in Britain which proudly kept its windows large and clear was ‘Manto’ on Canal Street which opened in 1991.

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Up until then (and for many years afterwards) gay bars had covered windows which protected the punters from prying eyes. Inside they were dark, making them seem almost out of time, another place where time didn’t matter and you couldn’t tell whether it was day or night.

But to the uninitiated, it was often intimidating to even get through the door. While some clubs operated a members only policy, those who didn’t had to be very careful who they admitted – police raids were common and undercover officers weren’t unheard of: never mind the hooligans who might just want to cause some trouble. Clubs might be a discrete doorway in a side street, under a dingy railway arch or down a flight of damp steps: a knock to open the tiny hatch as a gruff voice barks ‘Do you know what sort of place this is?‘. The wrong answer and the door stays shut forever. Sharley McLean remembers her first visit to what was London’s most famous lesbian club (as seen in the film ‘The Killing of Sister George’), the Gateways…

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Gateway Girls

‘Somebody looked through the spyhole and I had to show the membership (I had written off for). I’d used a pseudonym, and Freddie had allowed me to use his address. I was let in. It was dark. I could feel them looking at me: all the eyes turning! Women were into suits in those days, very severe tailored suits with ties. I wasn’t even wearing slacks, just a frock and a cardigan, very ordinary, very straight. I could feel myself   flushing and looking around, I thought, I can’t go in any further. I went back and said to  Freddie, ‘I’m not one of them! (Sharley McLean interviewed by Jill Gardiner. Don’t worry – Sharley was ‘one of them’ and became a regular – she was also a regular speaker at Hyde Park Corner in London for over 30 years, speaking up for gay rights, that is)

Even then, when you’d made that life changing step across the threshold, it wasn’t plain sailing. The majority of pubs tended to be small, ‘boozer’ style places, not unlike Coronation Street’s ‘Rovers Return’: a ‘snug’ for those who liked to be away from the fray and maybe a back room for the jukebox, a singalong or for someone to get up and do a turn: maybe a song or perhaps a drag queen’s turn.

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Tony gives us a titillating picture of the New Union in the 1950s:

‘There was a room to the left and a long mahogany and stained glass bar to the right. ‘I Believe’ was coming from behind a closed door at the end of the corridor. But a second and softer theme, ‘The Wheel of Fortune’, was flooding into Peter’s left ear from a jukebox in the side room. This was full of American airman  and girls who made the professionals in Lewis’s Arcade look like royal courtesans. Peter had often heard the disparaging expression ‘good-time girls’ and he supposed he was finally seeing the reality.

The closed door at the end opened and ‘I Believe’ got louder for an instant as Edith Evans appeared. Noticing Peter he called out ‘At least this is one cottage that’s not being watched.’ Then he disappeared into the gents.

The song burst forth and Belsen Betty materialised. ‘Who just went in that cot?’ he demanded.’

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As Peter walked down the corridor, the near hymn ended to a faint spatter of applause…There were far more people inside the end room that the applause had led him to expect; it seemed as though a hundred pairs of wary eyes were looking at him. Once they clocked him for queer, the momentary tension relaxed..

But there weren’t just men here, there were collar-and-tie women too, and a few girls who had gone to the other extreme. Peter was inside and old-fashioned concert room were people sat on stuffed leather seats around the walls and on little stools at Britannia tables. Fading Christmas decorations still hung over a low platform with a tatty piano on it. A old ragbag of a grandmother, who no other establishment would have suffered, grabbed hold of the microphone and began to sing new words to the tune of ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me’

‘Now he’s leaning on the fender

Now he’s feeling my suspender

Ma, he’s inside of me’

Given that these bars were few, newcomers would be spotted immediately – with whispers of ‘fresh meat’ (or ‘fresh chicken’ if they were young) both spoken and unspoken. Allan Horsforth remembers going into what is now The Rembrandt on a Saturday:

‘It was heaving. When you were going to the gents you’d got to push your way through and push your way back. And you’d be groped for most of the way…

Naturally, these places were haunted by regulars, some of the more established faces claiming their own seats – a whoa betide anyone who, even accidentally, tried to take it. For many years the New Union had a triumvirate of bulldog faced trannies who ruled the corner  opposite the bar: too large for their frocks, too painted for the daylight, too dishevelled for a straight wig and too pissed to care. (Of course, not unlike Warren’s triumvirate of sourfaced soothsayers, Ena Sharples, Minnie Cauldwell and Martha Longhurst who owned the snug in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return in much the same way. Life imitating art?). Paul O’Grady remembers their scouse counterparts in the 1970s:

‘Big Carol, the ten-foot trannie dressed head to toe in mini skirt and polo neck courtesy of Littlewoods’ catalogue, would sip a pint of bitter as if it were a cut-glass schooner of sherry. A male nurse, known affectionately as the Queen Mum, who stood at the end of the bar with a rabbit-fur cape draped around his shoulders and a cheap diamante tiara wedged in his hair, would wave regally at passing customers as he knocked back the Babycham.’ (DRO 120)

All those lovely ladies…Lena Cross, Stella Artois; Roxy Hart; Polly Carbonate; Anna Phylactic; Regina Fong; Nana; Mrs. Shufflewick; Cheddar Gorgeous; Dockyard Doris; Lola Lasagne; Miss Thunderpussy; Betty ‘Legs’ Diamond; Ruby Venezuala; Molly Strychnine

Warren has spoken in the past about how the iconic matriarchs he created in ‘Coronation Street’ – Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner – were based upon the women he grew up around in Salford, the traditional strong northern women who ruled their families and communities with a whiplash tongue, and how some of their lines came from the drag queens he knew. ‘Camp’, as I have said elsewhere, can be a protection, a guard set up against those who wish to attack. For gay men what better camp protection than to re-create yourself as the one creature whom most men would cower away from: a powerful mother. Not for nothing are the best drag queens known as ‘fierce’. But this matriarchy served the community too. When he was starting out as the drag queen Lily Savage, Paul O’Grady worked in many gay pubs and clubs and the 1970s and 1980s and he remembers how, as AIDS’ insidious impact began to be felt, gay men would sometimes find solace with their mock mothers:

‘I had frequent visits from anxious young men in the dressing room of the Vauxhall, all of them wondering if they ‘could have a few words’. I always knew what was coming by the look o their faces and the oh so familiar opening line, ‘I went for a test last week…’

A nineteen year old ‘Ill call Tim broke down over the sink, dissolving into tears as he told me that he’d just learned he’d tested positive.

‘But I’ve only slept with two men,’ he sobbed. ‘How is it possible?

And, like all great Northern mothers, the drag queens would fight to protect their families:

‘In the war against AIDS, the Vauxhall, like so many other gay pubs and clubs, was in the forefront…I’d rant from the stage, expressing my feelings through Lily, trying to get the point across that we were all in this together, boosting morale and hopefully easing the burden in the process. I protected my audiences as fiercely as Lily guarded her two kids, Bunty and Jason, and wouldn’t think twice about leaping off the stage and belting any disrespecting heterosexual who’d wandered in with his mates ‘for a laugh’ and stepped out of line.’ 

Of course, drag can swing both ways – especially for butch lesbians…

‘These big women would come along – really big women, they looked like Desperate Dan – and they would go into the pub and really young boys. Then I started to realise that what I thought was young boys was women dressed up like men…Honest to God, I will never forget to the day I die, the smell of lipstick and Angel face powder and as soon as I got close to these blokes they were caked with make-up and their beards were showing through the make-up and they were built like brick shit-houses, these blokes’ Luchia Ftzgerald on her first trip to the Union.

There were codes to get used to. It was so easy for someone new to the scene to make a slip up and become a laughing stock: in many ways ‘coming out’ was like going through another form of adolescence: that time in your life when you are finding out about the rules and regulations of society, who and what you are and what you want and how to get it. That big bit of butch propping up the bar? Dame Gracie to you, honey!

Oh! The boys…Black-eyed Leonora; Dame Gracie; Countess Pox; Miss Sweet Lips; Susan Guzzle; Princess Seraphina; Sukey Pisquill; Dip-Candle Mary…

The location of a handkerchief could instantly tell a stranger your sexual proclivities. A raised eyebrow; a casual stare held a few seconds longer than is comfortable. Signs and symbols were important in a world where words could be used against you. Is it really so surprising that the French philosopher Roland Barthes, famous for semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in society) was gay (and closeted)?

We’ve been around forever
Look at us now together
ordering drinks at the bar
saying hello to men friends
smiling across at friends’ friends
ordering drinks at the bar

To speak is a sin
You look first, then stare
and once in a while
a smile, if you dare

We’ll stand around forever
regardless of time or weather
ordering drinks at the bar
Looking for love and getting
nothing that’s worth regretting
but wondering why we travelled so far

‘To Speak is a Sin’ – Pet Shop Boys

And what about the language we used? Take Polari: that strange language conjured up with snippets of romany and latin to keep flapping ears in the dark. While I’m not convinced that it was used as much as the romantic view of gay history would have us believe, it does sum up the challenge of fitting in, as this exchange from the 1960s BBC radio show, ‘Round the Horne’ shows…

  • Julian: We’re going to do Samson and Delilah
  • Sandy: Go on Jule, how do you see it?
  • Julian: Well, I see Samson as huge and butch, with great bulging thews and whopping great lallies, with long blond riah hanging right down his Jim and Jack…
  • Sandy: That’s rhyming slang for ‘back’. Or for France – ‘down his Jules and Jim’ – but I won’t go into that. Yes – so what happens?
  • Julian: I’ll tell you what happens – the film opens with him lying there spark out on his paliasse. Suddenly there’s a movement behind the arras, and who comes trolling in but this palone Delilah. She vadas his sleeping eek and she pulls out this pair of scissors and lops off his riah.
  • Sandy: yes, I can see that. Great close up of his head – nante riah. That’s your cinema verite.
  • Julian: Suddenly he comes round. ‘Who’s had me riah off? he squeals. ‘It’s all ebbing away’ – and the philistines come and mock him, Mr. Horne.
  • Sandy: What a figure of tragedy he presents –
  • Julian: Then they drag him up the king’s lattie, and chain his lallies to a pillar. Then he gets his wind up, and with one mighty heave he brings the whole lattie tumbling about their heads. End of film
  • Sandy: Bravo Jule, Bravo! It’s an Oscar winner. I shall go and go again. How about you Mr., Horne.
  • Horne: Yes it makes me want to go. And who do see playing the role of Samson?
  • Sandy: Well, let’s see – the description says ‘big, butch, muscular and blond’. There’s only one person it can be.
  • Horne: Who’s that?
  • Sandy: It’s you, Jules
  • Julian: That’s a pity – I saw myself as Delilah.

Just how much did you follow? I’ve attached a short dictionary of terms at the end of this article to help you out.

But we mustn’t forget that these places provided protection and support, be you LGBT or Q. Julia Grant, whose transition was recorded in ground breaking BBC documentaries in the early 1980s, remembers visiting a place in Folkestone…

‘…one large crowd of women that were sitting in  afar corner by the piano interested me. There was something not quite right about that gang of ladies. I was to find out later that evening that they were transvestites…Although I was uptight at work, I could relax in the friendly atmosphere of the club. No one knew of may past – I was just another gay guy who visited fro a drink. But one evening I actually for up the nerve to speak to one of he transvestites when he was at the bar, ordering several pints of bitter and a Babycham. I was by myself and there wasn’t anyone of interest in, so when he invited me over to join the crows I accepted.’

That meeting was to be the dawn of Julia understanding of herself.

Gay culture was,  until recently, a culture of the older person. Even after ‘legalisation’ of homosexuality in 1967, you had to be 21 (if you were a gay man) to legally ‘practice’ (of course, a blind eye would always be turned…) This led to a rather strange hangover from the postwar years which presented itself as an obsession with old-school Hollywood. Just look at the names of some of Manchester’s bars and clubs: Manhattan, Hollywood, New York, New York;  La Cage; Central Park. Some point to the influence of America on homosexuality in the late twentieth century: with the Stonewall riots of 1969 high-kicking Gay Liberation across the world. But I suggest that it is more to do with the escapism and glamour of old-school Hollywood: those strong women in glamourous roles which took us out of our dull and mundane lives for at least a couple of hours. Of course, that glamour has now gone but the hangover remains…

‘…the faces behind the Max Factor masks had identities and names. Not, of course, the names they were given in baptism. What vicar would have christened a man Belsen Betty? Or Norma Dawn, or Cottage Kate? There was a Lana and an Amber, and an Ava with a Birkenhead accent, who dressed as much like a woman as the law allowed. ‘As long as I’m wearing trousers, Lily can’t do me for masquerading’ was how he’d explained it to Peter.’

There was also a fondness for sing-a-longs of old light entertainment/ music hall classics such as ‘The Old Camp Fire’ which is still a firm (but bewildering, at least to me) favourite to this day. Here is Manchester drag queen and legend Foo Foo Lamarr performing it…

The rapid rise in the number of pubs around specific areas is also a relatively new phenomenon: bars tended to be scattered across cities, in the rougher, desolate parts and were fewer in number. When I arrived in Manchester in the late 1980s what is now known as the village actually only had about 6 or 7 bars. Imagine Canal Street itself: when I arrived you had the New Union at one end and then nothing but faceless offices until you got to The Rembrandt.

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OK, so Canal Street wasn’t quite as desolate as this in the late 1980s, but you get the picture

The areas in which these places sat had an impact on their personality: the less busy (and usually rougher) parts of town with cheaper rents and away from prying eyes was attractive not only to queers: prostitutes (both male and female) tended to work alongside as did some those interested in the shadier sides of business. In some places (Cardiff, for example) this heady brew drew queers to the docks…and with the docks came the sailors…

‘…it was a known thing with seafarers, oh dear me yes. When I was a little boy I was warned about sailors. Of course I didn’t understand what they really meant. But they warned us younger ones never to talk to sailors. Oh yes, because this is a shipping area you see. And when I was young I was a young fellow I was a shapely, fine-built young fellow and I used to hear all kinds of remarks. Of course, my job was bending down, see to the fishplates like this, and when you go along the  row, the dock row, you’d hear, ‘Cor, what I would give to shag him’…’ ‘Fred’

So, any night you might find yourself alongside prostitutes, drag queens, rent boys, dodgy dealers and anyone else wanting time away from prying eyes… and, of course, sometimes they could be just dog-rough. Marc Almond remembers Leeds in the 1970s:

This was the sort of place you had to know about. Situated in a dark part of Leeds, behind the Corn Exchange, you scaled the steep steps and knocked hard. A latch slid back and you were quizzed suspiciously before being allowed entry by the burley broken-nosed bouncer. Inside, Charlies was all red flock and chicken in a basket. It boasted a chequered seventies dance floor (as in Saturday Night Fever only with fewer squares) and was frequented by transsexuals, drag queens and rent boys. No elegant escorts here – there were the roughest Leeds could offer. The drag queens sported the ugliest stubble through their panstick and were of the variety who would glass you if you looked at them for too long. Hard crop-headed lesbians in donkey jackets completed this picture of late night gay elegance. Once evening a woman cornered me and pulled up her top to reveal large sagging breasts. On one was tattooed the word ‘mild’, and on the other ‘bitter’. ‘Guess where the lager is?’ she howled, spilling her pint all over me.’ 

Remember, sometimes there were few alternatives, the simple fact that there weren’t a whole host of bars and clubs  meant that these bars also tended to be packed, loud and very, very smoky. Jose Pickering remembers entering the Union for the first time:

‘There was a really good atmosphere in the Union – there was a real mixture of people. There were servicemen, there were barrow boys, there were prostitutes, there were drag queens who would get up on stage and do a turn…and we thought this was like wonderland.’ 

They also catered for a wide cross section of society. At the Gateways…

‘It was very mixed socially: you got everything from lady bank managers to school teachers and prostitutes all mixing. Among the higher echelons they used to say, ‘Don’t go near her, she’s a prostitute,’ whereas us lower echelons used to say ‘Oh, great, okay then,’ because of she was on the game she had to be essentially feminine and would. of course, appeal to the butches.’ (P17)

…and such girls! Smithy, Big Sandra, Jas, Pip, Cynnie, Queenie, Wash, Blond Archie, Crunchy, Big Leslie, Paddy, Ricky, Dodger, Old Phyl…

But the relationship between gay men and women didn’t always run smoothly. While gay men have long had a reputation for adoring women (especially those strong, dominating types typified by Tony Warren’s creations: Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples) this has always rubbed along a strain of misogyny which can be shocking in its blatancy: it wasn’t unheard of to hear the more bitter old queens to hiss ‘fish!’ whenever a woman came into a bar, especially – god help them – a male only establishment.

In a world of prying eyes it often felt safer to visit these bars under cover of darkness and as many would travel from miles around to visit, weekends took most trade, leaving weekdays often quiet and rather forlorn. Again, Paul O’Grady remembers this only too well:

‘Mid-week, Sadie’s could be a bit grim. A dimly lit bar with only a handful of the usual suspects dotted around the place staring into their drinks, glancing up momentarily at each sound of the doorbell in the vain hope that it might herald the arrival of a customer who could just turn out to be ‘the one’ or at least a quick grapple for the night. The overpowering stench of Jeyes Fluid emanating from the gent’s toilets caught in the back of your throat and you secretly wondered why you bothered making the effort as you drank your warm bottle of cider and stared at the lone drunk dancing with himself to the New Seekers’ ‘You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me’ on the tiny dance floor.’

If you look carefully you can still see glimpses of this culture: there are extensive scenes from The Gateways club in ‘The Killing of Sister George’ and a more up to date view of a gay boozer can be seen in the wonderful ‘Beautiful Thing’. ‘Nighthawks’, Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s film from 1978, gives us a warts and all peep at the life of an average gay man in London, including various trips to pubs and clubs. Finally, for a stark portrayal of the loneliness, desperation and desire which led to the development of this culture, you can do no better than ‘The Terence Davies Trilogy’, a series of films from 1967 – 1983 by Terence Davies.

We could, now, talk about the merits of this old culture versus the bright, brash in your face, new. But that would be missing the point. To a certain degree the old culture hasn’t completely vanished – there are still outposts and characters out there if you care to find them. Each as a role and a function which is and has been important to present and past generations. Our community has changed and reflects the society from which we come, just as it’s predecessor did: it is noticeable that throughout all the histories of this pub culture, apart from drag queens we find little recorded from the bisexual and trans members of our community. Bisexuals and trans people have always been with us, but like wider society we didn’t always recognise or celebrate that fact.

One issue which we can say has changed for the worse is the reliance on money within our community. Yes, pubs and clubs have always been money making businesses, but when we get to the point where you have to pay to attend events which are intended to express pride in ourselves, thus locking out those who simply cannot afford the price of the ticket (even, as has happened in Manchester, demanding that those who only wish to attend the candlelight vigil for those we have lost to AIDS pay full admittance)  is a shocking and scandalous situation we find ourselves in.

But let’s take the time to remember that glorious, cheap, cheerful, tacky and slightly bonkers (but then aren’t we all) culture which nurtured a community and paved the way to where we are today.

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Polari: a brief dictionary of terms:

  • Thews: thighs
  • Lallies: legs
  • Riah: hair
  • Paliasse:
  • Arras:
  • Trolling: walking
  • Palone: man
  • Vada: look
  • Eek: face
  • Nante: no
  • Lattie:

Bibliography:

  • ‘Behind Closed Doors’ – Tony Warren
  • Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and its times’ – Peter Scott-Presland
  • ‘From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club 1945 – 1985’ – Jill Gardiner
  • ‘Between the Acts: lives of homosexual men 1885 – 1967’ – Kevin Porter & Jeffrey Weeks (Eds.)
  • For more on Sharley Mclean, as well as a general lesbian and gay history of the UK see ‘It’s Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century’ – Alkarim Jivani
  • ‘The Devil Rides Out’ – Paul O’Grady
  • ‘Still Standing’ – Paul O’Grady
  • ‘The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy’ – Barry Took
  • ‘Tainted Life’ – Marc Almond
  • ‘Just Julia’ – The Story of an Extraordinary Woman’ – Julia Grant
  • ‘Fantabulosa: A dictionary of Polari and Gay slang’ – Paul Baker
Posted in Marc Almond, Tony Warren | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holiday Reading

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It’s a cold and wet and dark day in Manchester so my thoughts, naturally, turn to my upcoming holiday in Mallorca and what books to take. (And yes, the postcard above is from the place I’m going to!)

I LOVE choosing holiday reading – getting the selection just right: something light (preferably short stories which you can pick up and put down easily) and something which sustains your interest.

For my short stories I did think about the new Jean Rhys collection, but then , while I was thinking about what meal to prepare on Saturday, I suddenly thought why not take a cook book? Something easy to pick up and put down and so I decided on an Elizabeth David, a writer who covers history and food and doesn’t spend too much time faffing over measurements etc…

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It has to be ‘Mediterranean Food’, for obvious reasons!

I do think its sometimes good to take literature from the country you’re visiting, so first up a classic of Catalan literature, ‘A Broken Mirror’ by Merce Rodoreda, which I bought way back in February. First published in 1962 and translated in 2006. ‘A Broken Mirror’ charts the three generations of an aristocratic family from Barcelona in the 1870s to the Spanish Civil War, ‘the story of a splintering matriarchal dynasty founded on love, lies, secrets and betrayals.’ Perfect!

‘Cry, Mother Spain’ by Lydie Salvayre’ was first published in France in 2014:

‘Montse lives in a small village, high in the hills, where few people can read or write and fewer still ever leave. If everything goes according to her mother’s plan, Montse will never leave either. She will become a good, humble maid for the local landowners, muchisimas gracias, head bowed, sins confessed, with every Sunday off to dance the jota in the church square.

But Montse’s world is changing. Franco’s forces have begun their murderous purges, just as cities across Spain are rising up against the old order. Meanwhile, her brother Jose has retuned from Lerida with a red and black scarf and a new, dangerous vocabulary, and his words are beginning to open up new realms to his little sister. She might not understand half of what he says, but how can anyone become a maid in the Burgos household when their head is ringing with shouts of Revolucion, Comunidad and Libertad?

The war, it seems, has arrived in the nick of time.’

Whether I’ll actually read all these books is another matter altogether. Unlike others I’m not a particularly fast reader…and it wouldn’t be the first time that the books I actually board the plane with have changed dramatically!

Hurrah for holidays!

Posted in Elizabeth David, Lydie Salvayre, Merce Rodoreda | 1 Comment

This week’s book haul

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Firstly, ‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt. Based around the tale of Lizzie Borden, the American murderer. For some reason, I feel drawn to murder and mayhem these days…can’t think why.

A while ago I wrote about Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’ while I found fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. This month a couple of her earlier books have been published in the UK for the first time. ‘The Red Parts’ looks at the effect of the trail of the murderer of Nelson’s aunt, while ‘Bluets’ is a study of ‘blue’ in all its guises and is ‘a raw, cerebral work devoted to inextricability of pleasure and pain, and to the question of what role, if any, aesthetic beauty can play in times of great heartache or grief.’  This could go either way. However, it does remind me of a great book which I read a long time ago: Derek Jarman’s ‘Chroma’, in which Jarman takes us through the spectrum, using each colour as a springboard for memories, dreams, emotions and insights of a man equal parts artist and activist.

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If you’ve read Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ maybe you should look this up? You won’t be disappointed.

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‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’ is a collection of poems by Ocean Vuong, which has received rave reviews. I’ve always struggled with poetry, finding it intimidating as I’m never quite sure whether I’ve fully understood. However, it’s time to put my fears to one side and this looks quite the tonic.

Next up, another beautiful Puffin book, ‘The Borrowers’ by Mary Norton

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And finally, the film of Marilynne Robinson’s glorious ‘Housekeeping’ finally comes to DVD in the UK. Directed by one of Britain’s most underused and neglected directors, Bill Forsyth (‘Gregory’s Girl’; ‘That Sinking Feeling’; ‘Comfort and Joy’), Housekeeping was released in 1988 and despite good reviews made little impact: but it is a glorious film, a quiet whisper of strange mourning. While the three leads are excellent Christine Lahti, as Sylvie, gives a luminous performance, full of life and the itching, craving need for LIFE.

Posted in Derek Jarman, Dorthe Nors, Maggie Nelson, Marilynne Robinson, Mary Norton, Ocean Vuong, Sarah Schmidt | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Reservoir 13’ Jon McGregor

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Detail from ‘The Englishman’s Home’ by John Piper (1950-51)

Jon McGregor’s fourth novel present us with a panoramic presentation of life in the here and now. It is a stylistic dream, emersing the reader in what is the literary equivalent of 3D cinema. It is soap opera (not a dirty phrase in my book) on a grand, profound scale, gripping and tantalising without resorting to grandstanding spectacle. It is magnificent.

In a small northern town, a teenage girl goes missing and in the days, weeks, years afterwards we learn about how life – human and animal – carries on, regardless. McGregor carefully constructs the novel , providing a seemless flow of incident which comes together to create within each chapter a year’s passing. At first this disorientates, with a cacophony of people and animals and incidents and lives coming at you thick and fast, small bite sized snippets which feed into one another to produce an uncomfortable feeling: rather like listening to an orchestra tuning up, all the strings and reeds and breaths and brass straining against one another but slowly the snippets form patterns and something like a tune is formed, weaving together the delicate rhythms of life into which you are plunged: the tides of time, ebbing and flowing as it returns time and again to the rituals which mark time’s passing: from the universal (birth, sex, death) to the parochial (firework displays; exams; marriage; returning to the family nest) until at some point a facet of life is washed ashore and we notice it and it jolts us awake to the time which has passed without us even noticing. McGregor has produced a very special novel one in which instead of being told that time is passing,  we are actually carried along and given a clear, tangible sense of time passing, something which cannot be held back, that creeps upon us unawares: one minute the kids are messing around in cars, the next here they are as moody post graduates wondering what to do with their lives…and McGregor’s writing does this incredible thing of suddenly, from nowhere, forcing us to ask ‘where on earth did the time go’? The only other time I have ever come across anything remotely like this is the ‘Time Passes’ section of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’. However McGregor’s book is a very different beast: Woolf’s novel is one which displays its art on its sleeve which can make it feel like a rather frosty experience. Not so McGregor, whose novel is as clever and well crafted, but which carries its cleverness lightly with warmth and deceptively simple style. He presents a genuine delight in the everyday, something which Woolf could never match.

‘Reservoir 13’ is, necessarily, a ragbag of plots and threads which, as in life, sometimes come to a resolution, sometimes do not; it presents us with fascinating hints of what might be, what could be:

‘The streets were cobbled with frozen slush. Someone falling at the top of the lane by the church could have slid tight down to the packhorse bridge. The Cooper twins spent an afternoon proving this until Lee turned his ankle and had to be carried home, At the school when term started there was a sickness bug that went round. Jackson’s boys were kept busy with the sawdust and bleach. By the end of the week the staff had gone down with it too and the school had to be closed for a time. There was talk of the kitchen being at fault but nothing was ever proved. The pantomime was Snow White and in the absence of seven small enough actors in the area the parts of the dwarfs had been taken by the tallest and broadest men the production committee could find. It was meant to be funny but not everyone got the joke. Irene in particular could be heard trying to whisper objections. She wasn’t good at whispering. Andrew took his role of Bashful very seriously, and delivered his lines clearly. When he knelt before Ashleigh, who was playing Snow White, and promised to watch over her, the laughter quite abruptly subsided. There was a hesitation which was either a dramatic pause or Andrew forgetting his line and then Irene whispered that she still didn’t see why they couldn’t have just used children and the spell was broken. Late in the month Martin drove out to the disused quarry and took a sledgehammer to his desktop computer, kicking the pieces beneath the chassis of a burnt-out car.’ (214)

‘Reservoir 13’ also works in two recent literary trends: folk tales and nature, but like his stylistic devices McGregor touches on these lightly: this a community haunted by the missing girl who dwells on the edge of these lives, weaving in and out of the narrative: a sighting here; a theory there; the lonely haunted figure which may or may not be the girl’s father, all the while feeding into the folklore of the place until these stories become transformed into myth: fires are started and the girl’s father is suspected: an iconoclastic youth turns up to a Halloween party dressed as the missing girl.

Like Melissa Harrison’s ‘At Hawthorn Time’ McGregor also ties these lives into the natural rhythms of the natural world: we read about the mating foxes and follow their life cycles as pups are born and grow and hunt. We see the flora and fauna rise and fall in the same way as children return to parents at Christmas; as the annual pantomime and new year’s fireworks; as the daily dog walking: all rhythms and beats pulling together to produce a magnificent symphony of life.

Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ was last year’s book of the year – and this is equally as profound, but whereas ‘Autumn’ looked at tumultuous events through the eyes of ordinary people: this book looks at the ordinary and reveals how the  tumultuous, important and dramatic lives in and around us all.

 

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This week’s book haul

First another beautiful puffin, ‘Starlight’ by H Mortimer Batten:

Second is Benjamin Myer’s ‘The Gallows Pole’. A while ago I read and enjoyed Benjamin Myer’s gripping ‘Beastings‘ – I hope this is just as gripping and should be even more so if the great cover is anything to go by!

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Starting in 1767, ‘From his remote moorland home, David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land-workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history…Forensically assembled from historical accounts and legal documents, The Gallows Pole is a true story of resistance that combines poetry, landscape, crime and historical fiction, whose themes continue to resonate. Here is a rarely told alternative history of the North.’ 

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‘Dancer from the Dance’ by Andrew Holleran has long been viewed as a classic if gay literature – and one which I’ve yet to read. First published in the US in 1978, this is the first UK edition from 1980, an edition which emphasises, as if that is really needed, that this is as much a marker of a culture lost to AIDS as it is a piece of literature. Just look at the blurb on the back (and note the rather wonderful font!)

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‘Her Kind’ Anne Sexton

After the recent references to witches in ‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ and ‘Little Deaths’, I came across this poem, ‘Her Kind’ by Anne Sexton which I thought I’d share with you.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

And here it is read by Maxine Peake, as part of the terrific Eccentronic Research Council, whose album ‘1612 Underture’ is based around the true story of the Pendle witches.

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