London's new gay literary nights

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London still lacks a great gay arts festival to rival those of Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. So Time Out‘s Gay editor Paul Burston decided to try to organise his own – the bijou queer lit fest, ’Between the Covers‘ – with the help of some friends. That‘s when the fun started…

  • London's new gay literary nights

    From left: Suzi Feay, Neil Bartlett, Paul Burston, Christopher Fowler and Rupert Smith

  • 'Between the Covers' photo gallery

    It seemed like a good idea at the time. Rupert Smith and I were at the Homotopia gay arts festival in Liverpool – or it may have been Queer Up North in Manchester. We did a lot of events together last year. And each time we did, we’d have a similar conversation. Why doesn’t London have a gay arts festival on a par with internationally renowned events such as Queer Up North or Glasgay? We have G-Fest, of course, but it’s extremely small, consisting of an exhibition and a few performances at the Drill Hall. And we have the Pride Arts Festival, but that’s not really a festival, simply a tag attached to any gay arts event that happens to be on around Pride time. There’s no funding. The work isn’t commissioned. Big-name authors and performers aren’t paid to develop new ideas or flown in from America.

    Rupert has years of experience organising events with the House of Homosexual Culture. I have rather less experience, hosting my salon night, Polari. We decided something had to be done and started thinking about who to approach. So there we were, sounding off at the House of Homosexual Culture’s Christmas Fayre at St John’s Church, Waterloo. There were 1,000 people there that afternoon, all committed to the idea that gay culture doesn’t begin and end with the latest dance remix. Somehow, by the end of the day, word had got round that Rupert and I were organising a gay arts festival for London. Just the two of us. On our own. With no funding or steering committee or any of the things that successful festivals count upon.

    55 Freedom27_crop.jpg
    Freedom bar

    It probably would have ended there, or at least been put on the back burner for a while, had it not been for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans (LGBT) History Month. What a perfect opportunity, we thought, to put together an event and see if we have what it takes to organise a festival further down the line. We began sounding out authors and speaking to venues about the possibility of putting on a gay literary evening. For every Alan Hollinghurst or Sarah Waters there are hundreds of lesbian and gay authors who can’t get published. There is no dedicated gay publishing house in Britain, not since the demise of Gay Men’s Press two years ago. Lesbians have Onlywomen Press, but it’s run with little money.

    In some ways, it was ever thus. One author we fancied for our event is Maureen Duffy. Maureen was writing lesbian novels back in the early ’60s, when male homosexuality was still illegal and lesbians truly were invisible. Indeed, Maureen is often reported to have been Britain’s first lesbian to ‘come out’ in public. Her first openly lesbian novel was ‘The Microcosm’, which was published in 1966 and set in the famous London lesbian club Gateways. The book had a huge impact, prompting an avalanche of letters from isolated lesbians nationwide.

    Another author with a strong sense of gay history is Neil Bartlett. His first book, ‘Who Was That Man?’, was published 20 years ago, in the dark days of the late ’80s. Part polemic, part love letter to Oscar Wilde, the book underlined the importance of gay history in making sense of how we live today and prompted Edmund White to declare: ‘Neil Bartlett has grabbed history by the collar and made bitter love to it.’

    Bartlett’s work has always been both undeniably literary and unavoidably gay. But what of someone like Christopher Fowler? The award-winning author has never made a secret of his sexuality, and it certainly informs his writing, but he isn’t considered a ‘gay author’. Maybe it’s because he writes crime fiction, and so can be categorised elsewhere. One of the problems gay writers face is that gay work is still seen as ‘special interest’; the assumption being that while books by or about heterosexuals can be read by anyone, gay or straight, only other gays will want to read work by or about homosexuals.

    There are some signs that this is changing, and when Alan Hollinghurst walks off with the Booker Prize or Sarah Waters is adapted for television, it’s tempting to conclude that lesbian and gay work has suddenly gone mainstream. But despite the many social and legislative changes of the past ten years, many gay authors have difficulty even getting their books reviewed.

    Bartlett, Duffy and Fowler are three authors who do get reviewed and, luckily for us, all three agreed to take part in our event. So did author Helen Sandler, who has a specialist knowledge of gay publishing, having worked as an editor at the Millivres Prowler Group. Suzi Feay, literary editor of The Independent On Sunday, agreed to talk about the way lesbian and gay work is perceived by the critics. Jim McSweeney of Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury signed up to discuss the rise, fall and ongoing struggle of the independent gay bookshop. And Foyles agreed to provide the bookstall, as well as a speaker in the shape of floor manager Tanuja Bhogal, who has many interesting insights into the buying policies of the high-street chains.

    So the line-up was taking shape, but we still hadn’t fixed on a venue. We had considered the Oval House, but the main theatre space was fully booked throughout February and we were confident that the smaller theatre upstairs wouldn’t be big enough. Then, shortly before Christmas I was DJing at the Freedom Bar in Soho. Back in the early ’90s, Freedom was at the epicentre of gay cultural life in London, its basement theatre space home to a host of performers from Joey Arias to Lady Bunny to Leigh Bowery. Since then it has been used as a club space, its ceiling hung with mirrorballs and dancefloor adorned with poles. But who was to say that this space wasn’t suitable for a gay literary event? Certainly not manager Shaun Given, who welcomed us with open arms and the promise of free cockails.

    It took us a while to decide on a name for our event. Finally we settled on Between The Covers. It’s between the covers of books that we often first find ourselves. I still remember the shock of recognition I felt at reading ‘A Boy's Own Story’ by Edmund White and realising that not all gay men were ‘leper messiahs’ like Ziggy Stardust or sexual outlaws straight out of a Genet novel (though I know a few who still fancy themselves as such). The evening is billed as ‘a glittering gay salon night, celebrating LGBT History Month and exploring the past, present and future of gay publishing’. Also on the bill are Clayton Littlewood, whose blog about gay Soho is about to be published in book form by US gay publisher Cleis, and the actor David Benson, who helps bring Littlewood’s characters to life on their joint podcast.

    There were some authors we wanted but couldn’t get. Val McDermid sent her apologies, Sarah Waters was busy and neither Stella Duffy nor Ali Smith could make the date. Neither of our lesbian authors could make it to the photoshoot, which immediately had me worried about the lack of representation (a hangover from my days as a gay activist, and one I still struggle with). But, as Rupert rightly pointed out, if we went too far down that route we’d never organise anything.

    So, on the basis of this one, rather ambitious event, do I think I have what it takes to organise a gay arts festival for London? Well, I’ve certainly learned a few things, most importantly that events management is far more stressful than I ever imagined. Have I enjoyed the experience? Yes, without a doubt. And would I do it again? Ask me when it’s all over.

    Between The Covers is at Freedom Bar, 60-66 Wardour St, W1 on February 26 as part of LGBT History Month. Starts 7.30pm. Tickets £5 (includes complimentary cocktail on arrival). Info at www.myspace.com/homoculture or www.myspace.com/polarigaysalon.
    LGBT History Month runs from Feb 1.
    Info at www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk.

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2 comments
doug wilson
doug wilson

Well done for being so entrepreneurial! I hope that it will indeed become a more regular event. An aspiring gay performance and literary poet, I have long wondered why such events - and more gay publishers for that matter - are not around! Let's hope that the cultural revolution will continue to grow and grow!

eliza jane
eliza jane

so happy to hear of this event . I am on a journey to find out if I am gay and I dont want to meet people in bars . I love literature so this event id for me . I havent even read a gay book yet . all these I avoided through fear . I am writing about my experience at the moment . It is great to write without shame and to learn of all the different personalities . I had so many misconceptions about the gay community . I guess I will learn more from this evening . as for the article it contained usefull information . thank you for the event