Sea shanties, sailor boys and undiscovered horizons set a racy tone for the Sirens of Polari on Sea.
Arts Council funding means Polari is back in Hastings for another cracking Spring season of LGBT words and voices. The line up was very grand with Stella Duffy headlining and Juno Dawson and Fergus Evans … and the rogue of my novel, Rufius Biblus Catamitus.
Thanks to charismatic cultural commentator and Polari Ringmaster, Paul Burston, Rufius and the slaves were all fuss getting the sedan chair ready to shoot down the coast and give a reading. But what to read? Rufius was dead set on the sex chapters, but I was not certain that was such a good idea …
I was first up, which was a relief as my voice, which I’d lost since Halloween (receiving the costume prize at Halloween Polari as Medusa I’d couldn’t even muster a croak). So, what did we read? As it was a Polari crowd, I gave in to Rufius’ nagging and read from chapters 28 & 29. They are the only explicit sex chapters in the novel and I was uncertain whether or not to include them as it is not a pornographic book. After much deliberation, I decided to keep them as they demonstrate the ancient Roman sexual paradigm, which is very different to ours. Seeing the sex from Rufius’ perspective and then from his rent boy’s point of view (Rufius is written in 1st person, present tense from the view point of three characters) serves to whip off the glasses of our own cultural ideas about sexual norms and takes the reader into the minds and bodies of the characters.
It was my goal that Rufius didn’t simply satisfy the standard stereotype for a cinaedus (an effeminate buggeree), but that the novel showed the messiness and idiosyncrasies of sexuality – as Rufius says: “One’s sexuality is as individual as a fingerprint.” Academics assume all cinaedi fancied manly men, which is logical, but as in real life human sexual preferences are not defined according to strict categories, Rufius likes adolescents on the cusp of manhood, those youths who will become hairy men, manly men like Aeson.
It’s not the easiest thing to read an effeminate man, so I asked the audience to imagine me first as a fat, Roman in a toga with full make up and pencilled on eyebrows, and secondly as a gorgeous ephebe. I told them when to switch.
Next up was Fergus Evans, whose poetry takes the listener deep into the slow motion reality of the layers of awareness that constitute a single moment. Moments in cars having hand jobs in the rain, watching a river and the constant chatter of the brain as one peers out of oneself at the world. His description of the river, the intricate details observed in a moment of sexual intensity evoked the richness of ordinary things and pulled the audience in with him. By the time the break came round, we were lulled into a deep stillness.
The lovely Mike Puxley and Wendy Quelch had come along – and we drank wine served by the gorgeous Lorna Lloyd and chatted about Fergus’ powerful reading.
After the break ‘Queen of Teen’ Juno Dawson set the tone swiftly by commenting that her piece would be in keeping with the ‘hand job’ theme of the evening! Juno writes award-winning teen fiction. The audience was invited to step back in time to first fumbled sessions and self-conscious teen angst as her characters mused over their sexual and gender identities. Juno was wearing a greyhound print dress – two Italian greyhounds face to face. If anyone wondered, it’s from H&M and they also do tee-shirts (I had to ask as I have to have one – Blue & Moon will love it).
Juno, Wendy and I chatted about teen fiction and how it’s changing, the increasingly diverse ways young people can define themselves. Rufius, as you can imagine, is delighted at the increasingly tolerance, and confidence that can offer to young people in the throws of defining their sexual and gender identities. The teenagers in Rufius lived on the cusp of an age in which Christian extremism narrowed and condemned diversity of expression, so it seemed fitting we shared the stage. Juno’s books are a hugely important part of modern Britain’s blossoming of freedom of expression – as well as being extremely entertaining.
Stella Duffy – what a star! I was honoured to be on the same line-up.
Stella read from her novel-in-progress, London Lies Beneath, set in the 19th century about a South London family, whose men are sailors. Stella, herself native of Camberwell, tells us a story within a story as grandfather recounts to his young grand daughter his memories of the night he was caught in a storm on board ship, of how he was set with the fever and to avoid infecting the crew, they put him on a small boat for the night pulled behind the ship. The ship’s doctor came to help him, but he was past the aid of medicine. He doesn’t tell his granddaughter of how the doctor gave him the only other remedy he could: how he passed on his body heat and they made love in the night. He refrained from telling her, as all sailors do, of the discovery of the closeness that arises between men at sea for months, away from wives and families – with only the bodies of men for company and comfort.
Rufius is also a huge fan of Stella Duffy’s Theodora, so we had to give her a copy of Rufius. Stella said she’d wondered when she was researching Theodora who would deal with the material about the fall of the Serapeum. Rufius and I hope Rufius will give her a good ride – and perhaps some of the enjoyment I received from reading her novel about Empress Theodora, upwardly mobile yuppy of the 5th century, an actress and reputed prostitute who rose to fame and married Emperor Justinian.
Thanks to Paul Burston, the fabulous VG Lee and to poet, Anny Knight for the photos (especially the infamous Printworks’ spiral staircase shots)
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