Tremble, tremble, I am not a star

Image of Susie Boyt

I was poring over the Dukeshill Christmas ham catalogue, reciting its contents like some wondrous meaty prayer: “York, Wiltshire, Shropshire black, marmalade glaze, festive glaze, sweet cured prime loin.” (What Eliot might have made of these phrases time will never divulge.) If you don’t have a crackling log fire to curl up beside in winter, leafing through this catalogue is perhaps the next best thing. Roll on the scratch and sniff version!

In the background, Ethel Merman was belting “There’s no business like show business,” while I nodded keenly in agreement for, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, it is the hallmark of my creed. Me and the ham and the music could have happily passed the entire evening together, but there was work to be done.

I was getting ready to appear at Polari, the UK’s premier gay literary salon, a place not just electric with sequins and feathers, but also ringing with sincerity. At Polari hearts are worn, frank and open, and usually on sleeves, sometimes via appliqué. I had been asked to give a little talk. Dressing for such an occasion can be taxing. Last time, as I took to the stage there, my husband heard a man behind him say to his seat-mate, “That’s never a fella is it?” What to wear that would conjure a mantle, yet not a glut, of femininity?

My life’s battle with clothes can be summed up like this: I want the things I wear to proclaim loudly that everything that’s ever gone wrong in my life – none of it was my fault. Can you imagine the recherche little pow-wows I have with shop assistants?

Deciding on navy silk frills and a little blue-black fur cape, I made my way to the Southbank Centre, level 5. In the green room, opposite a Hockney drawing of Christopher Isherwood in a green room, there were three poets and a novelist who was putting on the blonde wig and make-up that would transform him from shy Jeff into his lustrous and outgoing alter ego. Vodka was drunk medicinally. Compliments flew through the air to one and all: “Look at you! Look at you! Look at you!”

First up, a young Northern Irishman, who read poems about his feelings of rootlessness and not belonging. A beautiful poet called Cherry spoke of a one-night stand that turned into a novel. Then Jeff appeared in all his finery. “Hell came to Lewisham that night,” he said, describing the wake of a drag queen who had left all his money to a new straight-acting suitor, with the condition that he took over the drag act for six weeks. The deceased’s relatives were livid. The beneficiary himself was aghast. The piece built to a crescendo: there was melodrama, there were showtunes; the author held the audience in the palm of his hands.

This you are going to follow? I shook my head with a sense of dread. I thought of the actress Betty Comden saying she hated to go on after Judy Garland because if you cut your head off three times and sewed it back on, still nobody would be interested. I knew how she felt. But it got worse.

The next act was an impassioned reading of the love correspondence between two male warhorses from Napoleonic times, one on the French side, one on the British. Having struck up a romance, a wedding seemed in order, but did ever two intendeds have more differing ideas for their big day? One wanted English meadow flowers up to its withers; the other wanted pomp and ceremony and scarcely any horses at all. The French horse snapped and called the English horse “bridezilla”. The crowd roared with pleasure. Such was the level of high spirits and hilarity in the room that one person in the audience actually fell off his chair.

And then it was me. They might as well have introduced me by saying, “Put your hands together for the most uptight person in the room.” My navy frills wilted. My half-up half-down hairdo, which had started off Ivana Trump-ish, dwindled to Liesl from an am-dram travesty of The Sound of Music.

I thought of Ethel Merman. I tried to summon the kind of star quality shimmering from every page of the Dukeshill ham catalogue. I even, for ballast, recalled something Mickey Rooney once said to me: “Susan! Who today swashbuckles like Errol?”

On to the stage, heavy-hearted, I crept ...

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