It was Rufius himself who broke the news that my debut novel was long listed for the Polari First Book Prize!
I’m not joking! Tony Leonard who played Rufius with an incredible performance at The Marlborough Theatre in Brighton in October 2016 called to congratulate me as I was sitting in the Snowdrop Pub in Lewes at my Tuesday writers group led by best-selling novelist and writers coach, Siobhan Curham. It was a surreal moment. For established writers a long listing might not be a big deal, but for me it was a dream come true. And of all the lists, Polari was the one I’d wished for. Siobhan recounted her experience of winning her first prize and shot down to the bar insisting on a celebratory drink.
Thank you to the 2017 Judges –
Rufius and I are delighted you enjoyed the book,
And thank you to my mentor Martin Goodman and Barbican Press for having the balls to publish a novel that deals with a barbaric and unpalatable period in history, the reverberations of which are still felt in the West today. European culture is but a flicker of Ancient Rome and the consequences of the intolerance and laws that condemned effeminate men to death by public burning in the 4th Century A.D. are still felt today.
What an enjoyable day with the department of Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire exploring how research meets the imagination.
There were girls that starved themselves into eels, absinthe fairies, literati suicide notes, invisible sci-fi towers and ancient Roman recipes. Rufius had on his favourite toga!
I’d been invited by the brilliant writer of one of my favourite novels (The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub), D.D. Johnstone and also Course Leader for the MA Creative & Critical Writing.
The University of Gloucestershire is on Campus at Cheltenham Spa. It’s a beautiful leafy campus part of which is a converted convent. Lania Knight (author of Three Cubic Feet) greeted myself and the other two writers on the panel in reception. Daisy Johnson is a short story writer whose debut short story collection, Fen has completely enraptured me and Lesley Ingram is author of ‘Scumbled’, a poetry anthology which has me equally enchanted.
The lovely Libby McIvor kicked off the questions:
“was it challenging to find the right balance between fact and fiction?”
It was fascinating to listen to the range of approaches we had each taken to our research and how we integrated research into our creative work in a variety of different ways. The question that was most interesting for me was: “Did the PhD process hinder your creative process in anyway?” I would say that if I had not undertaken the rigorous research required by the PhD Rufius would be a very different novel. The PhD gave me a ticket into Classics conferences and the classics community, which I became a part of and meant I had far easier access to some of the most recent research and thinking on Ancient Roman sexuality. Add to that that my second supervisor is an expert in Theology of the fourth century and my thesis developed a theory about a fiction writer’s point of departure from history, which I coined, ‘the pivot of authenticity’, I feel that my creative work only benefitted. The rigour of undertaking my historical research for the novel through the academic process resulted, in my view with a far better end product. So I would say the PhD process was a help, not a hindrance.
After questions from the audience, the three of us were asked to read a short passage from our work. I chose the section in chapter 1 where Rufius disembarks from the boat for the first time in Alexandria. The amount of historical research I undertook to recreate the ancient port of Alexandria (much of which is now underwater due to earthquakes and tidal waves) was extensive and the short excerpt demonstrated how writers use research to build the imaginary worlds they create.
Then off we all marched for a delicious Chinese dinner with the lecturers and students, followed by a fantastic evening event in The Frog and Fiddle pub which had a huge room with an even larger stage dedicated to events where we all read another passage from our books – and were joined by the students. The standard of the students’ work was very impressive. And we all had great fun. Thank you to everyone
Here’s an except from Lesley’s wonderful poem, Absinthe
You anchor the evening
To the stem of your glass
Aware that the whore in me
Will steal your night and leave
A slack morning.
It all started at the Snowdrop Pub in Lewes for The Alternative Miss Snowdrop.
I was on the hunt for another Rufius. So far there had been three – all fabulous, all talented, all with very different performances of the main character of my debut novel (it’s getting a bit like “I’m Sparticus!”) My friend Katuishka Borges (aka The Love Shaman) and I head to the Snowdrop on a stormy August Saturday night for on a mission to find a fourth Rufius.
Kat is Venezuelan and the summer downpour was more like winter for her so we sat inside drinking tea. All of a sudden we heard a voice. The voice was velvet; it spoke of luxury, hedonism and hinted naughtiness. We looked at each other and ran to the window to see who the voice belonged to. Tanya Hide (aka Tony Leonard) introduced the contestants in the pouring rain on the stage outside with the poise of an Oscar-winning starlet in California sunshine.
“Rufius!” We both screamed, spilling tea and getting strange looks from the people at the surrounding tables.
I was delighted that Tony agreed to play Rufius. He couldn’t have been a better choice. Tony is one of the most meticulous actors I have met. He was fascinated by the period and subject matter and researched the costume in detail. We had so much fun bringing Rufius to life.
I’d done a lot of research into the clothes cinaedi would likely have worn and was lucky to have the top classicists in America and Canada advising, but the items Rufius would have worn hung in glass cabinets in Museums. We needed to improvise. Togas were as long as 20 feet. We were lucky to be gifted some material unused from a Glyndebourne costumier … but how did they fold it?
The wig was Tony’s area of expertise and even Rufius agreed it is amazing. Cinaedi likely dyed their hair – Rufius dyed his both red and blonde at different points in the novel. Ancient dyes would probably have looked gaudy and bright and so we settled on orange. Tony amazed me by his attention to detail. We decided that Rufius would have copied the Ancient Roman matrons’ hair fashion of the fourth century and pied his hair up high with a multitude of plaits wrapped around the back in a heavy bun. The overall affect, I think you’ll agree is knock-out.
My job was to source the jewellery. Thanks to Lewes Martletts and a couple of boutiques we pulled together some wrist cuffs, and necklaces. Thanks to Penny La Pouse, Brighton’s Erotic Poetess, we found rings. We were going for the Ancient Roman version of bling. It was the overall affect we decided that would have the impact.
Finally the night arrived. I had to dash home from work and just about made it to collect Tony and shoot down to Brighton. We had done a full dress rehearsal so we knew how long it would take to dress Rufius and we managed it break neck speed. Both of us were nervous. It took two attempts and thirty safety pins to get the toga right. Ancient Roman men would have most likely had two slaves to dress them as there is so much material, but we managed it with just the two of us, but we could have done with Apollinos and Cassius to help hold the heavy fabric! On went the Cameo brooch, Rufius favourite item of jewellery and we were ready!
Paul Burston was as dashing as ever. We were first up. I was so focused on Rufius that I’d not given a thought to what I would wear until the day. I decided upstaging Rufius would be like upstaging the bride and so I went for the academic look and donned my reading glasses and a black dress and used the lectern to introduce Rufius with background to the history of the 4th century.
The audience at The Marlborough started applauding wildly as soon as Tony stepped from behind the curtain on to the stage.
He looked stunning. I’d taken my seat in the front row and watched the character that I had spent 10 years developing come to life. It was not the first time I’d been blown away by a Rufius performance, but to see him dressed as he would have been in his favourite clothes, moving around the stage, acting the part must be similar to how proud parents feel watching their little darlings perform in the nativity play at school or win at sports day. This was my baby on stage strutting his stuff – and the audience loved him. A massive THANK YOU to Tony Leonard. You are marvellous.
Next up was Cerys Evans, reading from her latest poem – a talent to watch. Garth Greenwell amazed us all with his detailed dive into the intricacies of desire in his reading from his latest book, What Belongs to You. VG Lee was as on form as ever reading from her latest novel and the glamorous Karen McLeod shocked us all by bounding onto the stage in white knee high socks, sad little trainers, waterproof hoodie tied tight under chin the epitome of square as Barbara Brownskirt, poet laureate of Penge (who writes her poetry at a bus stop in Penge). Sitting holding my pelvic floor as hard as I could to prevent pissing myself laughing next to an ancient Roman in a toga as to be one of the most surreal moments of my life. Thank Bacchus for Pilates!
We hung out in the bar afterwards with the lovely VG Lee, Karen McLeod, actress and model, The Lady Fushia and Richard Peacock. Penny la Pouse, Brighton’s Erotic Poetess (who’d wanted to see what we were up to with her rings) joined us too.
We were hounded for a play – I’ve another book to finish, but maybe a play adaptation of Rufius isn’t a bad idea.
Thank you again to the incredible Paul Burston for giving Rufius a stage, City Books and Richard Peacock for his brilliant photos. And thank you to Tony – you’re a star