It’s good that the day after the Booker Prize longlist was revealed, the shotlist for the Polari First Book Prize was announced at Polari’s regular literary salon held at the Southbank Centre. Concerns are rightly raised about the diversity of authors listed for any prize when announcements are made because it highlights how the industry and our society in general might be prone to elevating people of a certain gender, race, class or sexuality above others. The more prizes we have like The Polari First Book Prize (which honours debut books that explore aspects of the LGBT community), the more voices from all corners of our country are heard.

I attended Polari last night to hear the announcement and it was a pleasure to hear imaginative poet John McCullough read from his latest collection “Spacecraft”. His poem ‘Cat Flap’ went down particularly well with the audience. It was fitting to hear him read as his beautiful book “The Frost Fairs” won the prize in 2012.

I’ve read three out of the six titles shortlisted for the prize and you can read my full reviews of them by clicking the titles below. Fantastic to see Andrew McMillan in the running for yet another award and his inclusion gives a nice continuity as he read at Polari when the 2015 shortlist was announced last year. Stevan Alcock also read from his gay coming of age novel “Blood Relatives” set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. This makes a nice contrast to Paul McVeigh’s equally powerful coming of age novel “The Good Son” set in Belfast during the Troubles. Last night, Juliet Jacques also gave an excellent reading from her memoir “Trans” which gives a meaningful perspective on the everyday reality of a trans individual. I’m eager to read the other books on the list.

Have you read any of the below or are you interested in giving them a try?

Physical - Andrew McMillan

Blood Relatives – Stevan Alcock

Sugar and Snails - Anne Goodwin

Trans – Juliet Jacques

Different for Girls – Jacquie Lawrence

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

Last night at the Southbank Centre in London there were a series of readings for the Polari Literary Salon which primarily featured musical ladies and sensitive men. Alex Klineberg read hilarious passages from his short book “Dear Sebastian” about his friendship with the notorious ‘Kind of Soho’ Sebastian Horsley, a truly flamboyant and uncompromising artist/raconteur. Next Andrew McMillan gave an arresting reading from his debut poetry book “Physical.” He’s a particularly effective reader with the hushed intensity of his voice. So his opening poem ‘Choke’ instantly seized the audience’s attention with the emotional power of the words and his confidential tone. Performer Celine Hispiche closed the first half of the evening with a rousing series of impersonations/tributes/songs to lost personalities and performers of London. Her instant embodiment of each past soul was far more convincing than anything Derek Acorah could pull off. Another impersonation/performance was given by female duo ‘All the Nice Girls’ who invoked the theatrical and musical escapades of Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney in 1920s London. James Dawson finished the evening reading from his new young adult novel “All of the Above.” He spoke meaningfully about the complexity of teenage desire and confusion of sexuality. He also vigorously defended the need for sexual education in schools and scorned the snobbery surrounding novels about teenage experiences.

Writer and editor Alex Hopkins read the books shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. I was thrilled to hear Kirsty Logan’s fantastic book of short stories “The Rental Heart” made the list. I read it at the end of last year when it was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. What I appreciate so much about the Polari First Book Prize are the LGBT books it introduces me to which I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Bindel’s hilariously titled and rousing polemic about changes in the lesbian and gay movement sounds really powerful. I’m eager to read Al Brookes’ topical novel about assisted suicide after reading this article about it in the Guardian. I’m intrigued by the sound of La JohnJoseph’s experimental fiction. David Tait’s poems mix autobiography and love story. Below is the complete shortlist. I’ll be excited to hear who is announced as the winner next month.

Straight Expectations – Julie Bindel

The Rental Heart – Kirsty Logan

Self-portrait with The Happiness – David Tait

Everything Must Go – LaJohn Joseph

The Gift of Looking Closely – Al Brookes

The Informant – Susan Wilkins

After reading a couple books on this year’s Polari First Book Prize shortlist, I decided to go back and reread the 2012 winner John McCullough’s book of poetry The Frost Fairs. It’s only fitting McCullough received recognition for this book by a LGBT prize because several of the poems describe ambiguous lines of gender and sexuality. In fact the very first poem is from the perspective of someone whose bits are “a mishmash of harbour and ship.” Later a character is vividly brought to life when described trying to apply makeup and contemplating “the logistics of masking your beard shadow in a jerking patrol car when you’ve only one eye.” More than describing the multifarious perspectives of queer and trans people McCullough’s poetry also seeks an idealised space where gender is levelled out and identity blurred. In one later poem which contemplates the sky he writes “Cloud sex – or merging and changing – complicates matters because it makes it hard to remember who they are or were.” With the act of transformation identity is destabilised and is shown to be something that is constantly being recreated.

This also demonstrates another skill of McCullough’s writing which is to reflect the personal and particular in the larger elements like a sky of clouds or a galaxy of stars. Although we often feel bound in our own circumstances and might feel our lives are stationary, McCullough’s poetry reminds us that we are inextricably bound to nature and the movement of the planet through an expansive ever-changing universe. My favourite poem in the book ‘The Light of Venus’ juxtaposes a pairing of Earth and Venus with a separated couple and the memory of when they were together. There is an incredible tenderness described with the couple’s meeting and the energy created from it is set against the proliferation of lightning storms on Venus hidden under the serene haze which covers the planet. There is a sense of threat, but also a tender union borne out of a need for survival. 


Other poems in the book also evoke a beautiful sensual connection: “I picture your long fingers caressing the rims of improbable fountains, grasping mangoes from Assam, the sides of a bed that turns into a life-raft” His use of language creates a playful interplay between the erotic and fantastical. Again there is the sense of urgency – that romantic liaisons are both desired and necessary. The more sombre poem “Islands” sees a transformation similar to the above bed/life-raft where a bathtub turns into the sinister image of a boat filling with water. It feels as if these images aren’t only metaphorical but stand for the emotional reality of the narrator.

In a poem that draws the most direct connections between micro and macro worlds ‘On Galileo’s Birthday’ the universe is reflected in a bowl of cacti. Here there is the sense that casting our gaze outwards whether it be up to the stars or to lines of poetry we won’t discover any definitive answers. We can only marvel at the mystery and majesty of the world. This poem also seems to reveal McCullough’s primary mission in his incredibly moving and intelligent writing which is “plotting outer and earthly and inner space”

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn McCullough

From the first magnificently shocking line of this long-titled novel, I was instantly gripped by the powerful and original voice of the narrator. Like David Copperfield the book starts with the narrator Janie’s birth and the story continues on following her till the brink of adulthood. Janie Ryan is raised by her fascinating strong-willed filthy-mouthed mother who has returned to her mother’s house in Scotland after becoming pregnant after a short spate of living in London. The pair move all over the UK through a variety of social housing and exist on the perilous knife-edge between Monday benefit cheques and total poverty. Along the way Janie witnesses horrific scenes of abuse against her mother from a drug dealer she takes up with named Tony Hogan. Far from being something out of the ordinary amongst Janie and her friends it’s simply acknowledged “That’s what das do.” Although her mother finally escapes abusive Tony he eventually turns up again disrupting the modest peace and comfort Janie and her mother have been able to find on their own: “Tony smothered the life that me and Ma had built, a furry mould growing over a sweating slab of cheese.” With Janie’s mother dealing with problems of abusive men, poverty, substance abuse and depression she is forced into taking on a more adult role to protect their fragile existence: “We were a glass family, she was a glass ma and I needed to wrap us up, handle her gently.” Through a lot of strife and hardship Janie gradually grows to become as fiercely independently-minded as her mother: “Ryan Women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.” While dealing with a lot of difficult and painful subject matter, Hudson is able to maintain a lot of hilarity and genuine warmth in the story through her incredible array of characters and an inventive use of language.

One of the great things this book does is expose the inherent sexism of society especially when discussing pregnancy amongst people from poor backgrounds: “People thought it was an epidemic or something to do with the tides, ‘so many careless girls in one year’. Not one word about the careless lads.” Equally it exposes a troubling attitude towards women who drink, dress provocatively and stay out late at night: “they’d say it again, ‘You see? Hammered. Asking for it.’” Not only is physical and sexual violence overlooked by those around them, it’s passively condoned as something normal and that women of a certain “type” seek out. While the world may gasp in shock when someone of the upper classes like Nigella Lawson is shown with a man’s hand gripped around her neck, they’d be more likely to roll their eyes or turn away in embarrassment and fear when seeing an intoxicated woman on benefits being similarly abused by a man. This is a sick fact of inequality based on social and economic status. Hudson also shows how difficult it is to work towards a better life once you’ve been pigeonholed as coming from a certain class. In one scene at school Janie meets with a jobs advisor who rebuffs her aspirations to study law with the claim that his “job is managing expectations” rather than helping her to realize these dreams.


A great joy of reading this novel is the powerful way Hudson uses language to evoke her characters through dialogue in a way that makes them instantly familiar and understandable. The voice of the narrator also beautifully evokes the sense of time and place making it feel immediate and real. This is particularly effective in the way she frequently references the smells around her as in one scene in a cramped car travelling across the UK: “The car stank, layer upon later of reek, my feet stewing in my Docs (hormones Ma said), Doug’s ‘silent but violents’, though he delicately lifted one arse cheek when he let one off so it was hardly a secret, onions, lard and our unbrushed teeth thick with stale sugar.” This instantly takes the reader there and grounds them in Janie’s reality. I admire how Kerry Hudson has been able to cast light upon a part of British society not often seen or discussed. It’s a tremendously accomplished work of fiction.

This is the second book I’ve read which is nominated for this year’s Polari First Book Prize. It’s totally different from The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. I don’t think there is a useful way to compare them and I don’t think I could choose which should win the prize over the other so I’m more eager than ever to hear what the result will be on November 13th. However, Hudson’s novel is also nominated for the Scottish Book Awards which can be voted on by the public here:

While I haven’t read any of the other books listed for this prize I’d strongly suggest you support Hudson’s book by voting for her to encourage an innovative and very promising author.


In what way is the mind connected to the body? Can thought and material substance be intertwined? Are we all just organic machines that will eventually break down or do our souls extend beyond the limitations of the body? These are some of the philosophical conundrums pondered in Jack Wolf’s bizarre and fascinatingly engrossing Polari First Book Prize Nominated novel The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. Set in mid-1700s England the story is narrated (in the language and style of the time) by Tristan Hart, a boy raised by his stoic father who is in perpetual mourning after the death of Tristan’s mother. From early on the boy is shown to have a high intelligence and analytical engagement with the world: “The World was as an open Bible; the Challenge was in learning how to read it.” Tristan develops a medical fascination for the workings of the body regularly taking specimens of rats and other dead animals to dissect and preserve their bones for display in his room. However, Tristan is prone to dark fits where his mental unbalance leads to a breakdown. In these sections the narrative becomes much more hallucinatory as his vision of the world is skewed by visions of the demonic forces of the fairy tale figures of Raw Head and Bloody Bones as described to him when he was a child. After slowly recovering from one such fit he is given the opportunity to go to London to live with his father’s acquaintance, the writer Henry Fielding. Here he comes into his own remarking “Life was become a Joy to me instead of a Chore. I even began to forget mine apparent Madness. No longer did I study Descartes and Locke with the Desperation of a condamned Man. I suffered no Delusion, no Phrenzy, no Melancholia.” He begins medical training and studying anatomy properly. Slowly he develops theories and embarks on research which makes him believe he will produce groundbreaking work which will change the medical practice forever.

A large part of this novel is devoted to exploring the murky areas of sexuality not often touched upon in a way that is both meaningful and philosophical. Tristan realizes early on that standard missionary sex doesn’t excite him as much as it does others although there is a girl who works at an inn who teaches him the basic mechanics of giving pleasure remarking hilariously at one point that “Every Fool knows how to fuck. You needs to learn how to make my Cunny glow.” It’s only when he gets to London and visits a whorehouse that he is able to act upon some of the darker fantasies that have been brewing in his sexual imagination. Tristan seeks connections to understand his own sadistic nature and the relationship between pain and pleasure. As he observes at one point after whipping the face of a man he looks down upon as an animal, “Pain needeth neither Language, nor Reason. It crosseth all Boundaries: betwixt Man and Beast, Monster and Angel, even between Sinner and God. Did not Christ Himself suffer the most enduring Agonies upon the Cross? ‘Tis a Species of Love, I thought.” He sees pain as a purer form of connection between one person and another that can be more tender than a gentle caress. When matters of the darker side of human desire are written about in novels it usually focuses on the more sensational side. While the sexual scenes covered in this book strike a rhythm that sometimes builds to what might be titillation for some, they are handled with style and care.


When Tristan finds a soul-mate in his closest friend’s younger sister Katherine the two discover a bond over shared sexual desires of an edgier nature. Tristan admits to Katherine that their activities and sexual compulsions are “‘terrible, and vile, and cruel. But beautifull, despiting all of that.’” The ecstasy achieved through dominating the submissive Katherine creates a strong bond between the two and helps Tristan understand his true nature as both man and monster. Katherine says to Tristan, “‘you are no Raw Head; I say you are Bloody Bones; the Fiend who collects the marrow-Bones of the Dead, and prizes them more dearly than the Living.’” His interest in medicine and building upon his intuitive understanding of the bodies’ mechanics isn’t purely scientific but inextricably linked to his sexual drive. This is demonstrated in a disturbing scene where he observes a surgery on a cancer patient. It drives him to work upon theories regarding the connection between the body, nerve stimulation and the mind. He ponders whether thoughts and memories reside in the matter of the body or in electro-chemical processes of the mind: “Where doth any ordinary Memory exist when it is not in Process of Recollection? It hath not ceased to be. Yet it is neither in Man’s Awareness, nor is he aware of its Lack.” Tristan seeks to understand the ways in which mental facility is affected by a person’s physical status and vice-versa. As he progresses in his research and through pondering with references to great thinkers like Descartes he comes to understand how language acts as the bridge between mental activity and the physical: “Thought hath, or Thought is, a material Substance. How else could it be shaped into a Word?” Questions such as these loom in the background as Tristan carries forth on his journey and succumbs again to fits of “madness.” The book eventually becomes quite fantastical. A great deal of suspense is created as the reader must decide whether the events are only occurring in Tristan’s troubled imagination or in the real world. This in itself raises the question – if we believe in our minds something to be true does it therefore make it physically true?

Tristan is a fascinating character and it’s interesting to see his transformation throughout the novel. In some cases his personal struggles reflect the larger struggles of society at the time. Tristan’s late mother is Jewish and his heritage, as is made evident in his physical characteristics, arises periodically as an issue from which he cannot escape. He becomes aware that some people make judgements about him based on this seeing him as “someone alien: my Mother. I looked like a Jew.” As described in the novel, the government at that time was debating the hot topic about whether to pass a law allowing Jewish immigrants to become citizens. Issues of class, religion and sexuality loom large in Tristan’s tale and his personal struggles. There is a great deal to ponder and enjoy in The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. Scenes are described in brilliant metaphorical language and the dark story has a powerful gripping effect. It’s very seldom that an author writes intelligently about sex. Edmund White’s fiction and Jonathan Kemp’s novel London Triptych also do this. Wolf also breaks boundaries showing how sexuality can be explored in a ways that are creative, frank and relevant to everyday life. I haven’t read any of the other books nominated for this year’s Polari First Book Prize, but I think this would make an excellent winner as Jack Wolf is clearly a talented compelling author.