Medusa won the prize for best Halloween costume at Polari on Sea in Hastings.
Polari really is the “edgiest literary salon in the UK” as one Tweeter put it – it’s clear why events sell out. Paul Burston hosted with Halloween charm in horns and Vg Lee nearly scared the punters off as the Wicked Witch of Endor.
Paul McVeigh was first up and made the audience chuckle reading from his debut novel set in N.Ireland, The Good Son. Shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker, lovable young Mickey Donnelly has a dog called Killer and is in love with the girl next door, but even so, everyone calls him ‘gay’.
Erica Smith, wearing super-chic net veil and black velvet ears read from her novel in progress, Circus Skills for the Over-50s. The story opens with the heroine puking into the glove compartment of her car (the novel does what it says on the tin). Down from London she discovers the joys of the nudist beach whilst blackberry picking! A breath of fresh air from Chick Lit! Hurry up and finish it!
Chris Green – Oh, what a show! We must first note the Hubba-bubba pink suit. If that wasn’t enough to hypnotise, his delivery was – not least because he is an Olivier award-winning performer, but mostly because he is a trained hypnotist with the inside track on how you get to be a famous one. He had the audience in stiches with his tales of fake TV celeb hypnotists. I am so buying the book: Overpowered!: The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis.
Diane Perry read poems that reminisced upon her life and loves with soft delicacy and a sharp eye for detail, which is her style. I drifted into her world of harvest festivals remembered and loves too sorely not forgotten.
Novelist and literary critic, Adam Mars Jones’ coming out story turned into a family trial (his father is a judge). The dark humour and ‘coming out’ observations as he read from his recent memoir in his deep, haunting voice held the audience in thrall as if watching the Wilde trial in the dock. Superb – especially considering he got the nightmare final slot.
Paul set up Polari eight years ago. Fed up with not getting readings when Chick Lit writers are constantly being invited to do shows, out of sheer frustration, he set up his own salon. It started small – just him and a few friends, but there was a gap in the market and Polari was destined to turn into the UK’s edgiest salon.
We chatted as the dregs of the evening were toddling off home, or to find another Hastings drinking hole. Paul, Adam and myself pondered its success. Paul, modest that he is, said it was when Will Self came along to read that things really kicked off, but as Adam chipped in, it was always going to be a success.
Polari has winning formula: Paul lets writers deliver what they want, how they want. I am delighted to be reading from RUFIUS at the Southbank in February, when Rufius will come out of the closet after 1600 years. I asked Paul if an actor friend could perform Rufius. Paul replied, ‘you can do whatever you want.’ How many debut novelists who don’t write mainstream fiction get to have that freedom at the Southbank Centre?
Polari has a daring and charismatic host and a loyal following, but its edge comes from giving the mic to voices that the general public would rarely, or likely never hear of – alongside big names such as Ali Smith and Berardine Evaristo.
At a time when publishers are under increasing pressure to back books that they know they can sell, Polari is showing us that writing which is not mainstream can draw in the crowds. I went alone – as Gorgons tend to be unpopular – and sat between two loyal fans. Anny and Ruben go to practically every Polari event. I can see why they are hooked.
As Ali Smith put it: ‘I love doing Polari – a blend of audience sweetness, panache, cleverness and really good fun’
I was warned by best-selling author Steven Saylor (who gave my novel a rave review) that it would never get published in the US. My guess is that the US (excluding the Bible belt) is likely just as starved of edgy material as the UK audiences. Polari across the Pond … has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? In the meantime, I’m joining the Polari groupies!
Photos: A curtsey to Polari official photographer and poet, Anny Knight