Saturday, 22 September 2018

A response, not a review

New Queers On The Block.

September 21st 2018. The Printworks. Hastings

(HomeLiveArts with The Marborough)



A response. Not a review

I recently spent a couple of evenings at Live Art and Queer performances. I’ve seen a thousand over the years, some independent, some generously funded. Mostly short, mostly forgettable. I was asked to think about what I’d seen and respond rather than react. Not review. Nobody needed my approval or opinion.

At first I feel little personal engagement with the performances, I enjoyed everything I saw, but I wasn’t sharing my own experiences, I was just a passive observer, I knew the themes. frustration, irritation, anger. That need to find a voice. And that’s enough. I won’t deny anyone their voice or their ‘space’. I’ve worked far to hard to build my own. I know how precious it is. Until the final act.

Watching Rachael Young 

When I was younger and fitter and more optimistic I use to go to clubs. I frequently didn’t get past the door. I didn’t look gay enough, ‘too straight’. Always wearing a coat when everyone else was shirtless, worse when I was on my own. Which I usually was. Once the door staff asked me general knowledge questions as a test.

No - I didn’t know Judy Garlands' real name. I got the Night Bus home.

Many friends struggle to get ‘past the door’ one way or another. Often, because of their colour. I knew that. Watching Rachael Youngs’ interpretation of a medley of Grace Jones hits was the first time I’d ever seen the politics in the work. I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. It was always there, in plain sight. She talked, sang, moved, danced. I can’t remember - I was too busy thinking, remembering. Feeling angry.

I was actually grateful, but at the same time. Ashamed. Why have I never seen this before? Where the fuck have I been?

Afterthought. Queer: Adjective, noun, verb. 

I never liked the word queer. I word I learned at school. A word my mother said from the side of her mouth and my father, who spoke 7 languages, couldn’t bring himself to say in any of them. A word I overhead when I wasn’t supposed to, from people who thought they were being kind by hiding their mouths, and later apologising, which is much worse.

Queer was Larry Grayson, John Inman, Charles Hawtree. Queer was the old guy with silver hair from the RAF club, popular with the wives because was an amazing dancer, but none of the men spoke to him.

I struggled with the concept of reclaiming the word ‘queer’. Younger men can say ‘queer’ with relish. As if it meant nothing. Not me.

I left a teaching post after the Head of Year called a student ‘queer’ and a good job because a manager suggested making a single toilet available ‘For the queers, to keep the peace’.

Queer was the Joseph Losey film 'Victim'. Queer and Victim. Two words stuck together forever, a film I saw when I was 14, just as I started reading about a new type of cancer. Before it had a name

Queer had a life of it’s own and it wasn’t mine. I never called myself queer. It was too tainted. Too ugly. Too heavy.

Perhaps. I need to change the way I think about myself and what ‘queer’ is. Not just a word. A state of mind. A disruption. A disconnect, the detachment from the limitations of the regular world and it’s what makes me who I am. Who everyone else is. My queer space is a kingdom, not a prison. 




Below - the unedited long version with more personal details and anecdotes.


New Queers On The Block. 

September 21st 2018. The Printworks. Hastings

(HomeLiveArts with The Marborough)


A response. Not a review

Queer: Adjective, noun, verb.

I never liked the word queer. It was the word I had to field too many times at school. Too many times I heard it on TV with canned laughter to follow. It was a word my mother would say from the side of her mouth and my father, who spoke 7 languages, couldn’t bring himself to say in any of them. It’s a word I sometimes overhead when I wasn’t supposed to. Usually from people who thought they were being kind by hiding their mouths or turning their heads, and later apologising, which is much worse.

Queer was Larry Grayson, John Inman, Charles Hawtree. Queer was the old guy with silver hair from the RAF club who was popular with the wives because was an amazing dancer, but none of the men spoke to him. It was a pretence. An affectation. A flourish. A betrayal. A bullet.

I’ve always struggled with the concept of reclaiming the word ‘queer’. It’s too raw, too ugly. Younger men who didn’t have my childhood, my family, my shame, who didn’t live through London in the 80’s and 90’s, they seem able to use that word with relish. Just throw it out there as if it meant nothing. I never could.

I left a teaching post once after the Head of Year called a student ‘queer’ because he ‘tried too hard’ and I left a good job because a manager suggested making a single toilet available ‘For the queers, to keep the peace’. (To her knowledge there was only one, and it wasn’t me, but she didn’t know me very well).

Queer was painted on the garage door in the Joseph Losey film 'Victim'. Queer and Victim. Two words stuck together forever in an ugly, empty marriage. I saw that film when I was about 14, roughly the time I started reading between the lines when magazines began referencing a new type of cancer in America. About a year before my parents started reading about the same cancer in their newspaper, but it had a name by then.

Queer had a life of it’s own and it wasn’t mine. I never called myself queer, nor anyone else. It was too tainted. Too ugly. Too heavy.


Two things together to make one point. 

Thing One

I recently spent a couple of evenings at Live Art and Queer performances. I’ve seen a thousand over the years, in bars, theatres and Fringe or Pride events. Some independent, some generously funded. Mostly short, mostly forgettable.

On both occasions I was obliged to think about what I’d seen and respond rather than react. It was harder than I thought, but I was surprised to find myself more rewarded than I had ever expected. I wasn’t there to review what I‘d seen, and besides, they were already ‘on the stage’, they were ‘doing it’. Nobody needed my approval or was interested in my opinion.

I enjoyed everything I saw, but I didn’t feel much personal engagement with the performances. I wasn’t sharing my own experiences, I was just a passive observer, but I recognised when the themes were frustration, irritation, anger and the need to find a voice. And that’s enough. I won’t deny anyone their voice or their ‘space’. I’ve worked far to hard to build my own. I know how precious it is.

Thing two 

I work in the creative industries, last week I struggled to explain why a client needed to re-pitch their identity in line with the direction their practice is taking them, the closest I could get was ‘disrupt’. They are claiming a new space in their digital industry and working differently, without borders and limitation, cutting through traditional thinking and the confines of expected, anticipated procedures and working at odds with what is the accepted norm. Disrupt was wrong, it was too weak, it didn’t tell the truth.

Now I think that the best way I can articulate who and what they are, is to tell them they inhabit a new kind of space, if anything, a kind of queer space.

Perhaps that's it. I need to change the way I think about myself and what I think ‘queer’ really is. It’s not just a word anymore. It’s a state of mind. It’s the disruption. The disconnect, the detachment from the structures and limitations of the regular world and what makes me who I am. Who everyone else is. My queer space is a kingdom, not a prison.

The unexpected politics of Grace Jones and the queue for nightclubs.

A revelation 


When I was younger and fitter and more optimistic I use to go to nightclubs. I frequently didn’t get past the door. I didn’t look gay enough, I was too straight. I was always wearing a coat when everyone else was shirtless, it was worse when I was on my own. Which I usually was. One time the door staff asked me a selection of general knowledge questions as a test.

No - I didn’t know Judy Garlands' real name. I got the Night Bus home.

I know many men and women who’ve struggled to get ‘past the door’. Often, they believe, because of their colour. Watching Rachael Youngs’ performance, her spoken narrative and very personal interpretation of a medley of Grace Jones hits was the first time I’d ever seen the politics in the work. I was genuinely shocked at my own ignorance. It was always there, always in plain sight. I just needed let myself see it.

I was grateful, but at the same time. Ashamed. Where the fuck have I been?

Afterthought and conclusion, an anecdote from 1991. 

This is something that happened over 25 years ago but suddenly it could have been yesterday.

I used to teach Foundation at an art college in London, I’d only graduated myself a couple of years previously and was barely older than the students. They were the pale, white, middle class children of media professionals, TV writers, actors and the cream of the South London arts community. Insulated by trust funds, smart Georgian conversions in The Oval and cabs waiting for them on Camberwell New Road at 5pm every evening.

There was one boy, I can’t remember his name, he was gawky, nerdy and very camp. Deeply uncomfortable in his own skin. He was all glasses, heavy stubble and elbows. He came from a wealthy Jewish family in North London who loved him unconditionally but seemed totally oblivious to who he actually was. He was one of those young men who was born gay, and every cell in his body was boiling with rage, sexual frustration and confusion. He was deeply troubled, always on the edge of hysteria, he struggled to express himself, but without the vocabulary or the articulation. He had absolutely no filters, no fear, no references for how navigate life.

I spent a lot of time with him, he really needed careful handling, any task or challenge could throw him into despair, He told me that when he was 16, he’d read about the First Out Cafe in central London in Time Out Magazine, and made the journey from Stamford Hill to ‘find himself’. And that’s exactly what he did, he was soon adopted by an extended group of older gay men who looked after him and offered unlimited care and kindness. He needed a lot of protection.

But this was London in the early 90s. Over his 3 years or so as part of this community he’d already been to countless funerals and experienced despair that most of us feel only fleetingly in our entire lives. He would fill up with rage and frustration because none of his classmates or peers could understand how dark and desperate the world was or the pain he saw and felt every day. At that time, an important part of the highly politicised London gay underground was the alternative Queer arts collective, ‘The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’ and they welcomed him with a generosity and lack of judgement he hadn’t know before, he became a sort of mascot for them and they became a new kind of family for him.

The heat and electricity he seemed to generate and his crippling frustration were now channeled into a new identity and he became ’Sister Mary Moses of the Parting Cheeks’. He’d tag along to gigs and art events, wearing a nuns habit, high heels and a full face of schizophrenic makeup that seems so modern now. (Guys, you didn’t invent shit - it was always there!)

When the course ended he demanded the opportunity to deliver a 5 minute theatrical performance as part of his portfolio at the end-of-year party. A live Art event. The rest of his work was underwhelming, he wasn’t a born artist. The theme was loss, pain and AIDS. He danced, mimed and tore his heart out on a stage in front of 300 bewildered students, fully in character, completely free of fear or inhibition. I remember looking around the room and thinking that I was probably the only person there who had the slightest idea what he was trying to say. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen, and the only thing keeping him together. He needed that moment. He needed that space. That disruption. That act of creative violence, that grief and that anger and that rage, and he needed to make it into something good.

Thinking about it now I can see it was the greatest, queerest thing I’ve ever seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment