Brum Brutality? Kiss and Make Up by Carl Stanley. Book Review
For those familiar with the genre of gay publishing, the Polari Literary Salon organised by journalist and author Paul Burston is acknowledged as one of the best ways to meet new gay authors, experience new gay writing and to understand a little of what drives a particular author in the way he or she thinks and writes.
So it was that a few months ago I visited a Polari event in Soho, accompanied by AJ Thomas, author of our own book, Young Lad on Old Street. Both relatively new to the market, we wanted to see for ourselves the variety of talent on offer; it was here that we came across Carl Stanley reading from his new book Kiss and Make Up (published by Ignite Books and already on the long list for the Polari First Book Prize).
There was something about Carl's work that struck me immediately. Firstly, it was autobiographical; second, he was from the industrial midlands and finally, he was honest and frank about a painful childhood spent coming out at a time when being openly gay was to run the risk of a beating - as well as bringing perceived shame on the family household.
But the real clincher for me was the emotion with which Carl read from his work and then became tearful as he talked about how his mother had finally come to terms with his sexuality and who he was. And then... he introduced his mother to read from the postscript from the book. Wow! Talk about hit between the eyes: very powerful indeed. I just had to buy the book...
So what is Kiss and Make Up? In short, it's a true story of a teenager coming out in Birmingham (or, more exactly, Smethwick) in the 1980s. It is written against the backdrop of a period playlist (Boy George, Siouxie and the Banshees etc), a dysfunctional home life with a a manic depressive, neighbour-conscious, unhappily-married mother, and fellow adolescents trying to find their way in the darkness of industrial transformation, misinformation and social judgement.
Carl's journey through the book takes us into a world of uncertainty, lack of parental support and the inevitable drug of shoplifting to take away the pain of emotional abandonment. He reminds us of the brutality of school life, not only from fellow pupils but also from those who were in a position to support those being bullied, the teaching staff themselves.
But he also talks openly and honestly about his sexual awakening and cheers us with his assertiveness of wearing make up on the streets as a challenge to "normality". His early experiences are graphic (we can barely imagine now the down-at-heel seedy urban club where he is french-kissed by an older Geordie stranger) and some are frightening, such as when he is trapped in an Austin Metro which is reversed by its gay driver into a narrow alley way so that no-one can open the car doors while sex oocurs (but Carl cannot escape either).
Love in this environment is hard to find. We learn of Carl's illicit and painful relationship with Seb, who is at the same time going out with a mutual female friend. Yet when Carl meets Simon, we see for the first time what falling in love is all about - even if this itself is also tinged with insecurity and we are left deeply saddened by how the relationship develops.
But in Kiss and Make Up, what really wins over is that in this dismal environment, enlightened only by cheap cosmetics, alcohol and drugs, is that Carl not only finds love but also wins support from his friends and, ultimately, from the mother who has ignored him.
But it's not all plain sailing. Towards the end of the book we are drawn into a drug-fuelled haze of Carl's early adult life with flashbacks to what appear to be violence from his father while his brother did his best to intervene.
This part of the book, bridging the gap between his teenage years and his later success as make up artist to the stars, could perhaps have told us more and we are left occasionally puzzled as to what is happening (mind you, in my teenage years the only drugs I ever took were one too many pints of Greenalls Mild or Festival so what would I know about the damage drugs do?). But I'd liked to have seen more, for example, about how we went from Ghost Town Brum to Up Town London - there's definitely an aspirational journey there to be told and Carl must be the man to tell it.
Yet this is not a major point and in this drug-fuelled chapter we are left to dwell on this, notwithstanding: that childhood unhappiness often has a bitter hangover in adult life as we turn to drink or drugs which, in cordial obedience to our needs, somehow attempt to steer us to a greater understanding of our failed and shattered selves. The seeds of destruction are often sown at home, as Carl himself reveals with his mum's absent-minded, yet bizarrely ironic, pinning up in the kitchen of Larkin's This be the Verse.
Life is made as we will it so., but at the end of this storm is a golden sky. The last section of the book, where Carl's mother has finally made a success of her life away from her husband and is fully reconciled to Carl's sexuality and success, is a winner. When I read her couple of pages, I too felt tearful as I reflected on darker years of childhood in the north. Her kiss and make up reconciliation is quite wonderful - perhaps made more so because this is the very section she chose to read at Polari, where I first came across Carl and his wonderful book.
Kiss and Make Up deserves success - even as a film or TV drama. Despite the sex, and the drugs, I also wonder whether this book should be made available in school libraries. Why? Because there is a greater truth in Carl's book which emerges triumphantly: there is majesty in true friends and no one at any age should have their real self crushed, or beaten, out of them.
Kiss and Make Up is like a candle in the darkness for those who are too timid, or too ashamed, to be themselves.
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