Last night, AJ Thomas and I attended our first Polari Literary Salon event at the Light Lounge in London’s Soho to hear a selection of LGBT authors, playwrights and poets reading from their work. Timed to coincide with the London Book Fair, it was a special event and, with over 100 people in attendance, was a sell-out.
What is the Polari Literary Salon? Creator and host Paul Burston, himself a successful fiction and non-fiction author, explained that he set it up when he found that other events were not prepared to celebrate the talent of LGBT authors.
In the spirit of every great entrepreneur, if there’s a demand and no supplier then supply it yourself! And the Polari Literary Salon is what he has supplied – from its humble beginnings in 2007, there are now Polari events held across the UK, including here in Soho, on the South Bank, and by the seaside at Hastings. Each year now there is an autumn tour too, with events being held as far afield as Bradford and Aberdeen.
But back to last night. I have to say that it just got better and better during the course of the evening. The venue was discreet, modern and relaxing and the hosts were warm and welcoming to us as first-timers. A quick half pint of IPA (the more adventurous could choose from a range of ingtriguing cocktails) settled the nerves and then we settled down to listen…
Soft and gentle, sharp and wry…
First up was author and comedian VG Lee. Sporting a large wide-brimmed hat, Lee was immediately enchanting; her reading concerning the opening of a store in Oxford Street where the proprietor had booked the Andrews Sisters and then Dusty Springfield as the celebrity host was charming, wry and very funny. Her second, brief reading, was a corker: describing a visit to a cinema with her former friend Diedre and how it all went horribly wrong was a masterpiece in how to create a comic scene and continue to scale it. I like the character of Diedre and the somewhat put-upon character of VG Lee’s narrator; this couple could go far (even if they’re no longer friends – for reasons which become obvious as Lee builds the story but which include, amongst other more serious things, happily eating M&Ms which have spilled on the floor)!
Transgender in the desert
Next up was a complete change of theme with playwright and actor Alexis Gregory reading from his play Slap. The two characters Gregory described in his reading, and the way he had structured the play itself, were at once energising but also sad and, given some of the subject matter, challenging of convention. A Transgender woman and a gay man with clearly troubled backgrounds dominate proceedings. After the soft humour of VG Lee, this was a different reading altogether but nonetheless sought to reinforce our love for each other and the human struggle for survival. Gregory went on to describe his early years in “the desert” of Zone 4 in north west London; it was hard not be moved by the back stories he read to describe the two characters in Slap; in particular Dominique, born a boy and unable to say the word boy.
Diana Souhami’s reading was a change of tone again, moving here to biography and talking about the challenges faced by being a Lesbian and how, thirty years ago, it was not possible to openly describe yourself as such (including an exquisite account of how members of the House of Lords debated how legalising lesbianism would only encourage women who otherwise would never have heard of it). Souhami read as if she were reflecting and for much of her reading I actually thought she was giving a talk; her delivery was dry, laconic, super clever and very, very funny. Her facial expression changed not throughout her delivery and you could see that a great many in the audience had come specially to see her.
I thought she was fantastic- I could listen to her all day; her talk about the marketing men at publishers was so sublime and spot on (having worked in this business myself for many years I recognised immediately the vanity, arrogance and conceits she described so well). She wanted to name her book The Sapphic Idyll but the UK marketing team at her publishers wanted to call it Wild Girls because people in the UK wouldn’t understand the word Sapphic. Hoping for better with the US edition, she fared no better; the US publishers said that their readers wouldn’t understand the word Idyll. So Wild Girls it was – that’s what lesbians are (or were), apparently! Hilarious!
Not a gay poem
Last up was poet and spoken word performer Keith Jarrett. I’d noticed Keith in the audience – he was wearing colourful trousers and, apart from VG Lee, Paul Burston and a rather self-conscious me, the only other person wearing a hat. In my ignorance, I was unfamiliar with him, but It was clear from the way others were around him that he was going to be interesting and he didn’t disappoint.
Performance poetry is done from memory and Jarrett’s performance of two pieces was exemplary; I particularly liked the way he juxtaposed his own experiences in NE London with those of Gregory in NW – both deserts in their own way. For me the poem which really was powerful was "A Gay Poem", reflecting on a request about whether he had any gay poems in his repertoire. The way he went from “No” (celebrating the fact that nothing should be classified) to “Yes” (celebrating pride) was exquisite mastery of his art. Do not deny yourself; Jarrett was the perfect way to finish a perfect evening.
The Polari Soho Special was indeed special. It was warm. It was proud. It was welcoming. But it was also something else: a showcase of some exceptional talent with some truly astonishing observations, reflections and techniques. At this literary salon you felt at home and liberated and its success is warranted – there’s something great happening here. A nice touch too, I thought, was the stand from the guys at Gay’s the Word bookshop. Everyone here was celebrating a joyous freedom and it was quite wonderful.
Apologies - this blog post was written from memory and with no notes; if any information is incorrect, please accept my apologies. I shall happily amend as necessary.