Of late, boozy gigs with ancient comrades from old London Town have been as rare as ginger imams. Somehow life just gets in the way. So, one evening I fired off a text.
“Boys. It’s high time we had a coven.”
After a flurry of replies, it was game on.
I always get down to the big city a tad early – to imbibe the vibe and cast my spell over the Soho boys. I know, hopelessly deluded. Gay scene wise, Soho isn’t quite what it was. Online ‘dating’ has seen to that. Nevertheless, a few old haunts stumble on, attracting the after-school crowd. I wandered into the Duke of Wellington (or the Welly as it’s affectionately known, my spiritual home back in the day). As I headed for the bar, I spied a former squeeze in the corner of my eye. By the time I’d been served, the hairy old crow had taken flight, leaving half his pint behind. Clearly, my magic wand has lost its vigour. I wouldn’t mind but it’s over twenty years since we stepped out.
After a sherry or two with my London witches, we pitched up at a local brasserie for a bite and a long natter. We wittered on for hours about everything and nothing and by the time we were hoarse, the staff were sweeping up and stacking chairs around us. It was time to mount our broomsticks, and as befits three old sorcerers whose powers to bewitch have all but withered, we were tucked up in our beds by the stroke of midnight.
This is what we looked like twenty years ago before our allure had faded. Obviously, that’s not yer actual Taj Mahal. We were in Blackpool for a dirty weekend. And where better?
And this is what we look like now. No wonder our wands have dropped off.
All men convicted of homosexual offences no longer illegal have now received a royal pardon. The general pardon (so-called Turing’s Law) is modelled on the 2013 pardon granted to Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who broke the German Enigma codes during World War Two and shortened the war, saving thousands. In return, he was convicted by an ungrateful nation of gross indecency, chose chemical castration over incarceration and killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41. It’s a story full of shame, none of which was his. For the dead, the pardon is posthumous. Those still alive and mincing (reckoned to be around 15,000) can apply to have their convictions expunged from the record. I could have been one of them. I just didn’t get caught.
John Hurt, the first Chancellor of the Norwich University of the Arts, was a talented, versatile and prolific character actor. His superb portrayals of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Max in Midnight Express and Caligula in the BBC’s I, Claudius immediately spring to mind. There are many, many others in a career spanning six decades. But for me, it was his role as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant which resonated the most. It was 1975 and I was 15 and fretful. The film was a revelation. Not because I wanted to do a Crisp by slapping on, dragging up and renting myself out for a few shillings. No, because I suddenly realised that if Quentin could live an unabashed life during the most hostile of times, then my own coming out might not be so traumatic. Apparently, John Hurt was strongly advised against taking the part. It would be career suicide, he was told. Hurt ignored the doomsayers and I’m so glad he did. And despite a few initial wobbles, my step from the closet turned out just fine.
Recently, apprentice clerics at an Anglican theological college in Cambridge were given permission to hold a service to commemorate LGBT history month. The Church of England still gets its collective cassock in a twist about sexuality, particularly in matters carnal and marital, so a step in the right direction you might think. Allegedly the cheeky ordinands went a tad too far for some when they held the service in Polari, a slang language of mixed origins once used in Britain by sinners on the social margins – actors (when acting was considered little better than whoring), circus types, villains, ladies of the night, and up to the seventies, gay people.
So, instead of…
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The congregation got…
Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy.
The college principal ‘hugely regretted’ the use of an unauthorised liturgy. In other words he threw a queeny fit. Personally, I think it’s much ado about nothing. It wasn’t a public service and, since the Bible has been translated many, many times down the ages from the Hebrew and Greek texts, who’s to say the Polari version is any less legitimate? A fairy tale is a fairly tale whatever language it’s in.
Polari died out when times became less buttoned-up but a few words have entered into modern parlance – naff and camp among them. It has a delicious un-PC vocabulary of wonderfully ripe terms. Here’s a few…
Basket (a man’s bulge through his clothes); bibi (bisexual); bona (good); bona nochy (a good night); bungery (pub); buvare (a drink); camp (effeminate); carts (willy); chicken (young man); cottage (a public convenience used for jollies); dilly boy (rent boy); dish (bum); eek (face); handbag (money); jubes (breasts); lallies (legs); mince (walk); naff (nasty); national handbag (welfare benefits); omi (man) omi-palone (camp queen); plate (oral sex); palone (woman); palone-omi (lesbian); remould (sex change); riah (hair) rough trade (working class sex); slap (makeup); todd (alone); tootsie trade (sex between two passive partners); trade (sex); troll (to walk about looking for sex): varda (see).
Varda the godly chickens!
If Christmas was sedate and tranquil, January was an exploding glitter ball. The month began with the high flying Cinderella at the London Palladium, the middle featured La La Land, the bookie’s favourite at the Oscars, and the grand finale was a splendid performance of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at Norwich’s very own Theatre Royal. Literally meaning ‘the cage of crazy women’ – in fact ‘folles’ is French slang for screaming ladies of an entirely different gender. ‘Cage’ enjoys a glorious pedigree – the original 1973 French play, the 1978 (my coming out year) Franco-Italian film, ‘The Birdcage’, a 1996 Hollywood remake starring the late, great Robin Williams and a multi-gonged stage musical. The latest revival is now doing the rounds in the provinces. After Trump’s depressing God’s own country speech at his inauguration, it certainly revived me with its delicious ‘I am what I am’ bugger the bigots message. John Partridge’s performance as Albin, the ageing drag queen, was a revelation – totally OTT one minute, delicately poignant the next. The Norwich crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
Why is it that bad news travels fastest and furthest? Tales of comfort and joy are always way down the bill on the nightly news. I was reminded of this by Julia at Turkey’s for Life when she commented on my recent Good Samaritan post. Despite my usual it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night demeanour, the post was a tad gloomy. And my mood was hardly lifted by the slaughter in an Istanbul nightclub or the death of George Michael. As contemporaries, George and I had more than one or two things in common.
Julia reminded me that 2016 wasn’t all death and destruction, disease and destitution. There were many good news stories that failed to make the headlines. Luckily for us, Future Crunch compiled many of them in a post – 99 Reasons 2016 Was a Good Year – which Julia posted on Facebook to add a positive flourish to the end of the year. Many of the ninety-nine celebrate remarkable successes in conservation, ecology and sustainable development. Let’s be hopeful. At the end of the day, this little third rock from the sun is all we have.
Over to George for my favourite track of his – Praying for Time – a real gloomy tune from the master of slash-yer-wrist ditties. It’s all in the words.
We recently attended the funeral of David Harries. It was a bittersweet gig, sad but not in the slightest bit depressing. Stripped of dust-to-dust religious delusions, the ceremony was the perfect celebration of an OTT life lived totally in the moment. Never was the old adage ‘live fast, die young’ any more apt. It was a motif David wore on his designer sleeve without apology or regret. Laughter echoed through the chapel. We were celebrants, not mourners.
On the way to the funeral in London, we stopped off for a spot of tiffin at Balans Soho Café. They have an interesting mission statement, something they call their ‘manifesto’. It goes like this:
I know it’s just a corporate mantra but it’s more uplifting and less cynical than most. And I think it’s a sentiment David would have heartily approved of. I know I do. We raised a glass.
David leaves behind my old mucker, Philip, his partner of 21 years. In place of floral tributes to wither and rot, Philip asked people to donate to the Za Foundation, a friend’s charity currently raising money to give a Christmas dinner to children in South Africa who might otherwise go hungry. Few if any reading this will have known David and I know it’s an expensive time of year but if you have any pennies to spare… well, you know the drill. Here’s the link.
If you do donate, please mention it’s in David’s memory. Philip would be really chuffed.
David Harries (1960-2016)