I had my weekend planned. I went to the Lass O'Gowrie in Manchester to meet up with fellow ming-mongs to chew the fat over life, the universe and everything. Lovely time and much drink and laughs later I had dinner and settled down to a night in front of the box. I had also planned to do a double review of the last two episodes of Merlin. Unfortunately, some bastard little germs got the better of me and in a Garbo-esque 'I vant to be alone' mood I swanned off to bed after watching an episode of Coronation Street from 1984 in a flu-like haze.
Fortunately, I had this little tome to buck me up.It truly is a book at bedtime and a tonic for those trying to bear up whilst feeling under the weather. O'Grady has been a favourite of mine ever since I first clapped eyes on that monument to all drag characters, Lily Savage, back on the gay scene in the early 1990s. The clever thing about this book is that it isn't a kiss and tell showbiz document and is actually a supremely funny account of his childhood and teenage years. I also found it extremely moving too as the book ends on a cliffhanger. A girlfriend rings him up and announces she's having his baby on the day his father dies in hospital and his mother recovers from a near fatal heart attack. I absolutely empathise with his guilt, even though I'm not Catholic, over his father's death and his inability to deal with the event as a 19 year old boy. The tone of regret he feels for his selfishness towards his parents at the end of the book is heartfelt and one that I'm sure quite a few of us former, selfish teenagers can recognise after we'd led our long-suffering parents a merry dance.
'Just don't let me catch you wearing my clothes. Gay? Gay, me arse.'The delight of this book is how he evokes family life in Birkenhead through some exceptional observations and recall of memory. The detail is remarkable - particularly in how he describes his array of aunts and cousins, his father and mother and the house and place of his birth. His mother leaps off the page, is a fully formed flesh and blood recollection and as Paul trails through his school days and wilder teenage years, leaving devastation in his wake, the narrative always circles back to his mother and what her response will be to his latest failure or triumph. From the amusing anecdotes about her National Health teeth, to the constant, and spectacular rows with the next door neighbour Rose Long and the ongoing class warfare with Eileen Henshaw at the local shop, his mum Molly always seems to get the last laugh. When he finally comes out to his mum after agonising about his sexuality, all she can say is, 'Just don't let me catch you wearing my clothes. Gay? Gay, me arse.'
I can totally understand his deification of his Aunty Chrissie because I had aunts of a similar ilk. Very glamourous, quick witted and intelligent women who could see through men and knew exactly how to deal with them. Chrissie comes out with some fabulous one liners and it's clear that the first glimmer of Lily's origins lie in Chrissie's attitude to the world, her no-nonsense approach and humour. She also shared a job that my own father had - a clippie on the buses. His description of her beauty regime is wonderfully observed and he describes how she multitasks putting on her war paint with deciding which horse to put a bet on whilst smoking like a chimney. Her methods of dealing with bus passengers caused one woman to remark of her, 'She's got a mouth like a bee's arse.'
Paul obviously had a short attention span as a child and he often describes how bored he got with school and the various jobs he had as a teenager that he could never hold down. His parents' hopes for an Oxford educated son are dashed when he fails the 11+ and ends up in a school not of their or his choosing. For a short period he even goes in for a spot of cat burglary much to the shame of his parents. There are accounts of the rather evil Brother's Of St. Anselms dishing out the leather strap for the most minor of misdemeanours. As a young fella, he gets a job at a run down hotel/restaurant in Surrey and one night 'borrows' a bottle from the bar and then is harshly treated by the management who take him to court for stealing. He come across as impulsive and naive as a child and this carries through to his attitude towards sexuality and his journey into adulthood. Bless him, much to the exasperation of parents, teachers and bosses alike he does try very hard to do his best. But there always seems to be something that eventually goes wrong, sometimes because he gets bored and sometimes just down to sheer bad luck. There's certainly a tension between his good fortune and what he expects he'll get as payback to take it all away.
His picture of the gay vice dens of the city is beautifully realised...The really fascinating part of the book is when he finally meets Tony. Tony is the gay man that most of us of Paul's and my own generations would have killed to have around in our formative years. He's the guide to the twilight world of the homosexual that those of us of a certain age and inclination were crying out for in the early 1970s. Paul's adventures in the gay underground of Liverpool's nightclubs and bars are an eye opener on what the gay scene was like before the acceptance and commercialisation of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His picture of the gay vice dens of the city is beautifully realised, especially the activities with the sailors visiting the city when it was still a thriving port. It's a vanished history captured in lurid detail and the raucous stories of his employment in the Bear's Paw as Shanghai Lil, his encounters with a vast array of gay men, known and unknown, are to be relished.
The prose is full of witty descriptions and asides, flows very naturally and the odyssey of his youth is gripping, hilarious and sad. He's a remarkably good writer, superb at capturing the times and places and much of his working class upbringing and his experiences as a gay man certainly chimes with mine. It demonstrates that Paul is a complex, sometimes very cynical, always funny and warm individual. A real fighter in many respects in the way that he deals with many of the downsides of actually living your life. I suspect he's extremely grateful for what he has achieved and I bet his parents would be equally mortified and delighted in the way the little bugger turned out in the end. However, c'mon Paul, you've got to give us the second volume and pick the story up about your daughter, how Lily came into being and your relationship with Brendan Murphy because I'm damn sure it would make a very warm, humourous and heartfelt tale and you've clearly got the skill to write it. More please.
(Oh, and yes, you'll get your bloody Merlin reviews so just hang fire will ya...)
At My Mother's Knee...And Other Low Joints (Random House - EAN: 9780593059258 Hardback - Published 24th September 2008)
Cathode Ray Tube Paul O'Grady At My Mother's Knee