Last night the Polari Literary Salon celebrated it's 7th birthday in the Royal Festival Hall. This is an event which I first began going to during it's humble beginnings upstairs in a pub in Soho where people packed in tightly together. Authors stood precariously amongst us while drinks were passed around. Now it's expanded into a monthly event in a large room on the South Bank with a spectacular view over Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. But it still retains that sense of a tight-knit friendly group hungry for culture and a fun evening. The salon has also recently embarked on an ambitious tour over the UK and hosts a lucrative annual first book prize. It's admirable the dedication and passion which author/journalist Paul Burston has shown in creating and sustaining Polari which consistently showcases some of the best new and established writing talent in the country.
The authors who read this evening were particularly special. Starting with Ben Fergusson reading from his novel "The Spring of Kasper Meier" (which I reviewed earlier this year here). He described a scene in a post-WWII Berlin bar where information was slyly exchanged and tentative relationships formed. What struck me hearing this passage was the sense of endurance and wry humour of the voices which came alive as he read them. There is a real survival sense to these German natives who have come through the war and seen their community fragmented and now find their lives ruled by desperation, longing and suspicion. Next Alex Marwood read a hilarious piece which made parallels between iconic characters in literature and the types of people you find in the city today. She also read a chilling extract from her new novel "The Killer Next Door" which draws you to empathize with the central character only to twist you around and realize you are relating to a serial killer. Niven Govinden read from his profoundly moving novel "All the Days and Nights" (which I reviewed earlier this year here) about the relation between artist and muse/ art and viewer. His voice had a hushed intense quality which was utterly arresting and intimate and particularly appropriate for this story narrated in the second person. It really brought alive the intensity of feeling the artist has for her subject and lover as he journeys out to reclaim his sense of identity and search for meaning. After an interval Sarah Westwood read from her book which is a collection of personal journalism "The Rubbish Lesbian." Here the 'love that dares not speak its name' is that which a woman feels for her cat, a passion more intense and fully-realized than that which she feels for her own lover. Her observations about the way popular straight culture relates to the queer community were insightful and utterly hilariously. Finally, Neil Bartlett came on speaking with authority and sincerity about the importance of remembering the transformation of queer culture and the way that society doesn't change – but it is changed bit by bit by individuals who make it change. He draws an important distinction between passive acceptance and activism. He read a piece called 'That's what friends are for' which he wrote in 1988 about a conversation between father and son. The situation and characters were disconnected from any specific time or place, but in this abstraction they came more meaningfully alive in the formations of their relationships. Then he read from his new novel "The Disappearance Boy" (which I reviewed earlier this week here). As a veteran of the theatre, Bartlett has an impeccable sense of timing in his dramatic reading which related the opening scene where a mysterious boy faces the possibility of death. In the hushed tones of his oration it felt as if this boy became a universal figure standing bare and confronting a fate which might either destroy or recreate him. The individual's will is desirous not so much for self-immolation but a sense of contact with a god-less divinity.
It was a pleasure and honour to be able to hear these authors read. I have a great respect for the effort Paul Burston goes to rallying together talented authors in a showcase that is lively, fun and community-binding. Hopefully Polari will have many more birthdays to come.