Tag Archives: book

Why would you re-issue a 25 year old book about dodgy soft-core porn films?

David McGillivray first turned up in this blog in 2013 feted for his highly-admired work on cult sex films, horror movies and scripts for Julian Clary pantos etc.

At the time, he said: “My films are not art. They’re just product designed to give people a bit of a thrill in whatever way is possible.”

He turned up here again in 2016, talking about his gay porn film Trouser Bar, which featured cameos by Julian Clary, Barry Cryer, Nigel Havers et al in a script that was definitely not written by Sir John Gielgud. Oh no. Not at all. Wipe the very hint of that idea from your soiled mind.

David McGillivray talks to the throng (Photo: Yak El Droubie)

Now he is back here again, in two crowded-to-overflowing upstairs rooms of a pub in NoHo or Fitzrovia or whatever you want to call it in London…

…launching a reprint and update – the new edition is twice the length of the original – of Doing Rude Things – The History of the British Sex Film, his book on dodgy and, frankly, not always 100% well-made soft-core porn films.

Why?

Well, this is what he explained to the assembled throng of well-dressed and (mostly) respectable-looking fans of dodgy British soft-core sex films in the room above the pub:


Doing Rude Things could define David’s career

When I was about 10 or 11, I found my father’s ‘glamour magazines’ in the bottom of his wardrobe.

When I say ‘glamour magazines’ you all know what they were – and they were called ‘art studies’ in those days. I was intrigued by them.

I thought: I’m obviously not meant to see these. He obviously hid them so that I wouldn’t. And so I became intrigued.

I reckon that discovery dictated the rest of my life and certainly my career.

Who could have thought that, in 1992, Pamela Green who, of course, featured prominently in all the magazines, would write the foreword to my book Doing Rude Things?

Pamela Green in Peeping Tom, the now critically-lauded film which destroyed director Michael Powell’s career in the UK

And then, another 25 years on, here we are in the Blue Posts pub, just a stone’s throw from Newman Passage, the main (opening) location of Peeping Tom which, of course, Pam starred in.

When the book first came out in 1992, I think most of the films I talked about had been forgotten. And I also think that the reason today we know films with titles like Secrets of a Door-to-Door Salesman and The Ups and Downs of a Handyman is basically because of me.

This might not really be the case!

But please humour me – I’m 70 years old and I deserve it!

The films had been forgotten but subsequently, after the book went out of print, they were kind of re-discovered and suddenly there was a film of the book and the films turned up on television for the first time, were issued on video for the first time – and I like to take credit for that.

The 1992 edition of Doing Rude Things

By the time the book had come out in 1992, I had already been working in soft porn for about 20 years – I had written porn films and I had written a lot of reviews of the films, because nobody else wanted to see these films.

As a result, I wrote a series of articles for a magazine called Cinema, which became the basis of the book Doing Rude Things.

After that went out of print, several people came to me and said: Why don’t you re-issue it? And I said No to basically everyone.

My feeling was that I couldn’t think of an audience for a re-print of the same book.

But, 25 years down the line, a publisher came to me with a new proposal for an updated edition and, by that time, life had changed.

Back in 1992, the internet DID exist, but nobody was using it.

By 2016, when I started working on this book, there was an entire community online – young and old – all sharing notes about these TERRIBLE films. Suddenly, there was a new audience for this genre.

So that is why the book has come out again.


There is a video online of David talking about his film Trouser Bar

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Comic Steve Best takes 440 snapshots of the collapsing (?) UK comedy circuit

On sale from this week

It’s a snapshot of the people who made the UK comedy circuit

This week sees the launch of Comedy Snapshota book of 440 photographs of UK comedians – mostly backstage – by fellow comic Steve Best

He is launching it on Tuesday with an exhibition of photos at the Nancy Victor Gallery in London’s West End.

The exhibition then continues 2nd-7th April, with Steve in the gallery every day. “I’ll just be chatting to people who come in,” he tells me. I think cups of tea may also have been mentioned. Perhaps I misheard that bit, but it’s worth a try.

Steve Best at the Nancy Victor Gallery last week

Steve Best with his book at the Nancy Victor Gallery

“I’ve been taking the photographs for seven or eight years,” he told me in the gallery last week, while he was preparing the exhibition. “I took a load on 35mm, then digital came in, then camera phones. So I had a load of photos. I was talking to Bob Mills about a year ago and he said: Why don’t you do a book? That’s a great coffee table book. So, about 8-9 months ago, I started writing to the comedians I’d photographed and most of them – maybe 98% – said What a great idea. It’s a snapshot of the UK comedy circuit and the people who made the circuit.”

“Why 440 photos?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Steve, “someone said Why don’t you do 250 comedians? Hold some back, then publish another 250? But I thought This has been such a long project, just get it out there and, if something happens with it, I’ll either reprint for Christmas and add some more people in or do a second book.”

“Are you going to sell individual prints of the comedians?” I asked.

“No,” said Steve, “We were thinking of doing that in the gallery, but they’d be very expensive to print and I’d have to have another word with the comedians, because then you would be using them.”

Sixteen of the 440 comedians featured in Steve’s book

Sixteen of the 440 photographs featured in Steve’s book

“Was it difficult to get them all to agree to appear in the book?” I asked.

“No,” replied Steve instantly, “I was really amazed. People like Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Lee Mack were all up for it. Sarah Millican was great. I took my photo of her in 2008 and, in the meantime, she had become a TV star. It was only in June 2013 that I went back to all these people and asked each of them to give me a one-liner joke, to tell me three or four facts about themselves that had nothing to do with their comedy careers and to tell me when they started in comedy.”

“What were you before you were a comedian?” I asked.

“I’ve never been anything else.”

“You never wanted to be a photographer?” I asked.

“No. Actually, I did do some photography very early on for a company, but even then I was doing comedy as well.”

“So you’ve always been purely a comedian?” I asked.

“When I was young, I used to juggle before school. I would do an hour of juggling.”

“I think I’ve seen you juggle,” I said.

“I’ve never juggled on stage,” said Steve.

“Ah,” I said.

“I did study the guitar,” Steve said. “I did eight hours a day on the guitar for about three years. I do get obsessive about things and I do get obsessive about the quality – I will put the hours in. I’m a bit lazy otherwise. Doing this book was full-on. I’ve never had a full-time job. Doing stand-up, you do 20 minutes a night.”

Portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

A portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

Steve not only took all the photos and collected and collated all the written information, he also designed the book – no small task.

“Why is it not in alphabetical order?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Steve, “I’ve put pictures which look good on the page together. It’s a design thing. I think it’s a book you pick up and flick through and read it and put it down and take it on the train. That’s why I’ve done it this size: so you can just take it in your bag.”

“In the modern digital world,” I asked, “does it cost more to do a full-page photograph rather than a page full of text?”

“It’s expensive to print,” said Steve, “because I’m not doing a massive run. If they were colour photos, it would cost even more to produce.”

“£9.99,” I said, “is good for 440 photos of comedians.”

“And there must have been another forty comedians whose photos I have but who didn’t answer the questions I sent them.”

“Comedians as a breed,” I said, “are perhaps not always the most organised of people.”

“It took me ages to get an answer back from some people via Facebook or e-mail,” said Steve. “It was only about four weeks ago I said: I’ve got to sign this off and get it to the printers.

“Then I started Tweeting and Facebooking and getting news about the book out there so people know it is going to exist and one comedian apologised to me about a week ago. He said: I’m sorry I didn’t answer you. I’m really sorry. Is it too late? And I told him: You’re already in the book. You DID answer me. He had just forgotten!”

“I guess,” I said, “that people were more relaxed with you taking photos of them backstage. A professional photographer who had never met them before would not be able to get the same pictures you have, because you’re a fellow comedian and you’re on the same wavelength as them.”

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

A ‘selfie’ snapshot close-up taken by Steve Best for the book

“Yes,” said Steve. “When you’re backstage, you’re not doing a posed studio shot. They’re quite relaxed with me. They open up, though I’m not really asking for anything personal. As far as the words go, I didn’t want the text to be a CV, so I asked for facts not to do with comedy. It’s maybe a quirky book.”

“You told me,” I pointed out, “that maybe 98% of the people you approached were OK with the idea of the book. That still leaves 2%.”

“I think there was a problem at the beginning,” said Steve. “It wasn’t until I had some ‘names’ on board that they all thought: Oh, OK, this is not just a stupid project.

“Micky Flanagan was the first person who responded with a Yes. When I took his picture, he wasn’t famous. And Alistair McGowan. I took a picture of him in the Chuckle Club: he was famous then, but was trying out stuff. He said Yes.

“Then, when I then approached other people, I could say: Look, I’ve got Alistair McGowan and Mickey Flanagan and loads of circuit comedians. Then I got Harry Hill, Andy Parsons and others. In the end, I had loads of big names and everyone was fine.”

“But some said No?” I asked.

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

“One,” said Steve, “told me Why would I want to be associated with all those cunts? But he was perfectly amiable about it. Some people didn’t want to be in it very early on but I think once it was clear I was doing a snapshot of the circuit and the people who made the circuit what it is… then it was OK.

“And the circuit is not going to last as it is for much longer. Everybody’s talking about it, aren’t they? It’s all going different ways and it’s very much television and touring and big stuff – or small. There’s nothing much in-between now. It’s very hard to make a living as a circuit comedian. The book is a snapshot in time of the circuit and the people who made it.”

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Atrocities in Kenya – a good starting point for Edinburgh Fringe comedy

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Njambi McGrath in Shepherd’s Bush last night

Comedian Njambi McGrath (pronounced Jambi McGrah) is thinking about writing a non-humorous book. Given that most of the UK publishing industry is currently running scared of anything not written by or about a famous TV name, I suggested she might make her idea into a comedy show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe because that would encourage her to do the necessary additional research for the book and also potentially give the idea some publicity which might impress publishers.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a particular bee in my bonnet about the fact that the best comedies are often about tragic situations.

“It was finding out about your parents which got you interested, wasn’t it?” I asked Njambi yesterday, while she was preparing for her weekly Heavenly Comedy Club in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. “You thought they were boring and had never done anything very interesting.”

“Yes,” said Njambi. “I always wondered why my parents were so poor as children. I was not brought up poor in Kenya, but my parents had been poor to a degree I could not understand. And I didn’t understand why my parents never talked about their childhood.

“Then I found out my mum was 8 years old when they moved her to this camp in the mid-1950s. Her sisters were 13 and 14 and were considered grown-ups, so they were included in all the women who were going to dig the trenches.

“They would wake up at six o’clock in the morning and spend all day digging trenches. They were given no money and no food. So basically they relied on handouts. They were given flour by the Red Cross and made porridge.

“What the British would do was turn up at a village and burn it down and then the villagers would be herded onto lorries and taken to a patch of ground and they would sleep under the sky until they built their own houses and then they lived in these ‘special’ villages which had trenches round them to ‘protect’ them from the Mau Mau.

“They would start by building one person’s house and all sleep there and then they would build another house and do the same until they had built the whole village.

“The people in these ‘special’ villages were mostly women, because the men were taken to detention camps. The British assumed all the Kikuyu men were Mau Mau. The women had to dig trenches to surround the new villages and surround them with barbed wire and, when they finished that, they would work all day clearing the forests so the Mau Mau couldn’t hide there.”

“And the Mau Mau were…?” I asked.

“The Kikuyu tribe,” explained Njambi, “were basically farmers and we lived in the most fertile land in Kenya with bright red soils, so the British moved us away from there and put us into special reserves and taxed us – hut tax and poll tax – but we had no money. The Kikuyu used to make money from their land but they no longer had that, so they were forced to work for the white settlers, the majority of whom had come from South Africa and were very right wing.

“The conditions imposed on the Africans were that they had to pay these taxes and wear a big ID hanging round the neck – basically like a bull. They used to call it a ‘bull bell’.

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

Jomo Kenyatta, first President of Kenya

“People were very disgruntled and the Mau Mau were men like Jomo Kenyatta (later President of Kenya) who went to the British and said We’re not happy with our rights. We want land rights. They weren’t taken seriously, so a branch of them decided it was going to have to be armed resistance rather than talking.

“They were based in the forests and their tactics were to go and either kill a settler or to kill a sympathiser of the settlers, because the British had chiefs who were Africans and they were as cruel if not worse. So the Mau Mau would kill people and caused a lot of terror because nobody knew where they were. They were all Kikuyu men or the vast majority were.”

“Why were they called Mau Mau?” I asked.

“No-one knows for sure,” said Njambi. “They think it’s because ‘mzungu’ means ‘white man’ and it’s an abbreviation of that and ‘go home’.”

(One theory is that Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru roughly means If the foreigner goes back to Europe, the African may get freedom)

“The women were put into villages separate from the men,” explained Njambi, “so they could give information about the men. Some of them, like my grandmother, were single mothers. She had no man, but they didn’t believe her. A single Kikuyu woman in Kenya was seen as a suspicious woman. People like that were tortured so they would give information about their husbands… but they had no husbands.

“The Mau Mau would come at night and harass the women in the special villages to give them food. But they had none. They were given flour by the British Red Cross. My mother ate flour from the age of 8 to 14. When they wanted to make it exciting, they put salt in the flour. Many of my mother’s friends died because they were mal-nourished. It was a double whammy for the women. They were harassed by the Mau Mau and by the British.

“If women did not co-operate or they were too weak to dig – if they were ill or injured from all the digging – they were assaulted to co-operate and coerced to work.

Idi Amin addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1975

Idi Amin addresses UN General Assembly in New York, 1975

“The people persuading the women to co-operate were people like Idi Amin (later President of Uganda, but then in the British Army). His job was to coerce people into giving information about the rebels. He was promoted year on year on year because he brought in results. He found ways of making women talk. He found new ways of breaking women. The British re-defined rape, using bottles, broken glass, hot boiled eggs and barbed wire. It didn’t matter if you were 13 or 14. You were considered a woman.

“My mother stayed in the village from the age of 8 to 14. When I found that out, I knew why she was so poor as a child and why she didn’t want to talk about her childhood.

“My father was a different story. His mother was killed in one of the raids.”

“By the British or by the Mau Mau?” I asked.

“Nobody really knows,” said Njambi. “She was found dead with her baby son – my father – suckling on her breast. My father had an older sister who was 5 years old and they moved into the streets of Nairobi and she looked after him. She used to beg and my father lived in the streets until he met my mother.

“Because of all the years he lived in the streets, my father became very ingenious. He used to beg, get money, go buy sweets and sell them at the bus stop. Slowly, slowly, he made enough money to buy more stock and more stock. Eventually he met my mother in a train. She was 14 and she was going to look for a job. My father proposed on the train. They started working as  team. Every day selling sweets. He was living in a hut. He was no longer living on the streets. They worked hard and they earned enough money to buy a farm and they had children and they put us in good schools. I was put in a boarding school. Education was very important for my father. He was all about bettering himself. He bettered himself. He taught himself karate, became a black belt and represented the country. He spoke five languages. And, one day, I came home and told him: Mum, Dad, I’m in love with a British boy.

“I fell in love with a British boy. What can you do?”

“And you want to turn this story into a book,” I said.

“Yes.”

“And a comedy show,” I said.

“I’m challenged by how I’m going to make it funny,” said Njambi.

As I said at the start, I believe that the best comedies are often about tragic situations – and you can do that without diminishing the horror of the situations. The most important thing is a meaningful story and people the audience cares about.

Njambi has a good starting point here.

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Revealed: who actually originally said that “comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll”…

Dave Cohen with his new book at last night’s launch

Dave Cohen and his book at last night’s launch

Last night, I went to the launch of comedy writer/performer Dave Cohen’s latest publication How To Be Averagely Successful at Comedy – it aims to be “a practical and funny book explaining how to make a living at comedy”.

If anyone knows how to be more – far more – than averagely successful, it is Dave.

We both worked at Noel Gay Television in 1989/1990. (For American readers… that production company was neither gay not Christmas-related. Noel Gay was a man who wrote a very British song called Run Rabbit Run Rabbit Run Run Run.)

Dave has written for – among many other TV shows – Have I Got News For You, Horrible Histories, Not Going Out and Spitting Image. He was nominated for the 1984 Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 1995, he was a founder member of the Comedy Store Players – the original line-up was Dave Cohen, Kit Hollerbach, Mike Myers and Neil Mullarkey. Dave has also programmed tomorrow’s Big Comedy Conference in London, filling it with big comedy industry names; his only stumble was booking me to be on a panel about the future (or not) of television comedy. Of what was he thinking?

Back in the day, Dave was even a columnist for the NME, The Face and the Guardian newspaper.

In my view, though, his main claim to fame is what he said at (what he says was) a lacklustre gig in the Camden Head venue in Islington one night in 1988. He had a gag which referred to his upcoming appearance at a Kensington venue formerly called The Nashville. He was enthusiastic about appearing on the very stage where many punk rock legends had bounced and spat.

His set-up for the gag at the Camden Head included the words: “I’m being asked to perform at venues where I used to see bands… comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll…”

A reviewer from City Limits (a lefty-wing rival to London listings magazine Time Out) was in the audience. His review of the gig started: “Now that comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll…”

Dave was the rather grandly titled Chief Publicity Officer for the venue and, to publicise their ’new material nights’ he sent out copies of the City Limits article to other journalists. A few weeks later, he stumbled on a TV programme in which Janet Street Porter said that comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll.

In his new book, Dave writes it was:

“A clunking phrase, invented as the set-up of a joke, abandoned, repeated in a left-wing magazine with a tiny circulation, then appropriated by a journalist on a fourth-rate chat show… I laid no claim, she was welcome to it. Sadly I learned that even barely-watched regional TV chat-shows reach more people in 30 minutes than I had managed in four years of stand-up.”

Guns ’n’ Moses were the new schlock ’n’ roll

Guns ’n’ Moses – the new schlock ’n’ roll (Dave is the central semi-naked one)

And so the words of Dave Cohen entered the language and affected the way comedy was seen when, a little later, Billy Connolly and Harry Enfield introduced bands at Wembley Stadium and Baddiel & Newman played Wembley Arena.

How To Be Averagely Successful at Comedy is definitely an under-statement.

Oh… Dave was also 1994-2000 a key member of the occasional piss-take Jewish heavy metal band Guns ’n’ Moses which, at various times, included comedians Al Murray on drums and Jim Tavare on bass.

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How to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Like Malcolm, a unique one-off

The increasingly prestigious target of stunts

Honestly.

You just have to say the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are increasingly prestigious at the Edinburgh Fringe and they start to be.

One of the three annual awards is the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt promoting an Edinburgh Fringe show.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Richard Herring’s clever publicity scam and Cunning Stunt Award contender in which he announced he had decided not spend lots of money on lamp post ads during the Fringe and instead spend lots of money giving away a free copy of his DVD entitled 10 to members of his audience.

Cunning Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer tries to hijack Richard Herring

Two days ago, Lewis Schaffer announced he will be spending the entire promotional budget for his Fringe show Lewis Schaffer is Better Than You on giving every paying member of his audience a free copy of… Richard Herring’s DVD.

Lewis Schaffer’s show is part of Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want variation on the Free Festival.

Lewis Schaffer said: “I thought, this year, why not spend my entire £75 budget on something that people might actually want? People love Richard Herring. At first, I thought I would give them a DVD of my own shows, but my shows are unfilmable and people don’t like me as much as Richard.”

Lewis Schaffer cannily added that the offer lasts only as long as his unspecified stocks last and only, he said, “if I can strike a deal with Richard Herring to get them cheap and, if not, I’ll give a copy of a similar DVD or other gift with a value of greater than £1 to all paying customers at each show.”

I am not sure if ripping off someone else’s stunt disqualifies Lewis Schaffer from consideration for the Cunning Stunt Award or actually makes him even more considerable than Richard.

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee would not have approved of any real rules (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

As there are no actual rules for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards, this is something we will have to decide nearer the date, possibly on a whim. Having any actual pre-determined rules would have been anathema to Malcolm.

A couple of days ago, I also got an email from the Fringe Office saying:

We’ve been getting a lot of enquiries about the Fringe awards for this year, so I wanted to add a line to the award summaries on our website to clarify how acts can enter their shows for the awards. Please could you let me know how acts can enter for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award or are they nominated or just selected by the judges? And then I’ll add that to the details on the website.

The only answer I could think of giving was:

God preserve us from people actually applying for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. We have enough problems! Acts are selected by the judges via osmosis, gossip, buzz and word-of-mouth.

Juliette Burton video shoot

Juliette Burton completed her pop video shooting yesterday

Juliette Burton, I guess, is another Cunning Stunt contender. Yesterday, I went to see her shoot the final scene for a pop video promoting her Edinburgh show When I Grow Up. It is only part of a whole raft of linked promotional ideas she has lined up. This might bode well as, last year, Stuart Goldsmith won the Cunning Stunt Award for multiple linked promotional ideas.

Juliette also got me to come along to a meeting she was having with her choreographer Omari Carter near the MI6 building. She told me she had once worked nearby, but this was less impressive than one comedian I know who was actually interviewed for a job at MI6.

I arrived too late to stop Bob Slayer drinking

Alas I arrived at cricket too late to stop Bob Slayer drinking

After that, I drove down to see the Comedians’ Cricket Match at Staplefield in Sussex, where Bob Slayer had apparently tried to swing the game by being one of three batsmen simultaneously playing.

And in a blatant, slightly drunk, attempt to curry favour before the Fringe, he tried to ingratiate himself by telling me:

“Your blog is very effective at getting publicity.”

He is publishing Phil Kay’s autobiography The Wholly Viable, financing it via an appeal on Kickstarter.

I blogged about it at the end of last month and, as of yesterday, the Kickstarter appeal for £3,333 had raised £4,727 – that’s over 141% of the target, with 2o days still to go.

“Your blog sent a few interesting backers to Phil’s Kickstarter,” Bob told me. “Russell Howard and Alan Davies are the latest backers, who also include Glenn Wool, Isy Suttie, Arthur Smith, Miss Behave, Chris Evans – who may or may not be the ginger one – Davey Byrne, who may or may not be the frontman of Talking Heads and John Steel – who may or may not be the original drummer for The Animals.”

Frankly, I think it’s more likely to be John Steed of The Avengers.

This is not normal - it is Phil Kay

Kay supported by Alan Davies, Russell Howard, Johnny Vegas

“Facebook has referred most backers to the Kickstarter page,” figure-fancying Bob told me, “with Twitter just behind it and there have been Tweets from Richard Herring, Johnny Vegas, Boothby Graffoe and Limmy.”

So there you have it, an increasingly prestigious blog effective at getting publicity which you should be proud to read, if only for the increasing bullshit factor.

But back to reality.

At the time of posting this on Monday morning, I am just about to leave for jury service at a court somewhere in England. My jury service was supposed to end last Friday, but has trundled on to today and possibly tomorrow.

There may be a future blog in this – not that I am one to be increasingly obsessive about seeing everything as a blog possibility.

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Fanny & Stella: “I had wanted to write a book which was completely gay”

Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.

But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.

The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.

There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Fanny and Stella bookLast night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.

The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.

Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”

But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:

“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.

“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”

Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month – a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.

“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.

“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.

“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.

“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.

“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.

“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.

“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.

“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?

“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”

But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?

“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.

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Jimmy Savile in a time machine in an odd e-book not like Fifty Shades of Grey

Now Then as e-published by Ben

Now Then as e-published now by Ben

“Who is Ben?” I asked.

“Ben is actually an acronym formed from the initials of the three people behind this.” I was told. “Think of us as a six-armed editing/ design/ marketing monster.

“We’re like-minded friends who are a bit disappointed that the eBook revolution has mainly resulted in an awful lot of dodgy, generic pap being e-published and not a huge amount else. eBooks should be heralding in a new literature, not 50 Shades Of Grey and a bottomless pit of 50 Shades Of Grey clones.”

So Ben has/have started a publishing entity called Illegal Characters.

“Our goal,” he/they told me last night, “is to build up Illegal Characters into a brand where readers know they’re getting something weird and original – and authors know they can fart around with creative ideas that would get them thrown out of any respectable publisher’s office.”

“So why,” I asked, “should Fred Bloggs publish with you?”

“It really depends on what kind of guy Fred is,” I was told. “If Fred’s written a standard scifi/romance/thriller/self-help book, then Fred should contact a standard scifi/romance/thriller/self-help publisher.

“But, if Fred’s written something that he thinks is really wonderful that doesn’t really fit anywhere else, he should come to us. We’re happy to take the time to work on a text that’s brilliant but flawed and, as long as we like the book itself, then we’ll get behind it.

“We’re not looking for the next JK Rowling, we’re looking for someone who’s going to be the first to do whatever the hell it is that they’re doing.”

“And your first book is…”

Now Then by Colin Alexander.”

“The premise of which is…”

Jimmy Savile steals a time machine… It’s a sci fi comedy about a nerdy professor and a pissed-off schoolgirl who are trying to wrestle the machine back from Savile before he rewrites human history to his own sickening ends. Featuring cameos from the Bronte Sisters, Shakespeare and A Time-Travelling Alien Who Cannot Be Named For Copyright Reasons. It also explains the true story of Jesus in a way that will probably have Dan Brown kicking himself for not thinking of it first.”

“And it has just been published this week,” I said, “which is why you’ve approached me?”

“Well,” I was told by Ben, “the plan was (and still is) to have a Spring launch for Illegal Characters with three full-length novels. But, when Colin told us about Now Then, we had to read it. And, once we’d read it, we thought it made a pretty good statement of intent for Illegal Characters.”

“Because?”

“It’s weird, it’s lots of fun and it would probably have been subjected to a lifetime of snippy rejection letters from other publishers.

“The fact that it’s a piece of fiction about something in the news right now was also really appealing because you don’t get a lot of rapid-reaction literature. You certainly don’t get a lot of rapid-reaction book publishing. So we took this on as a challenge to see how quickly we could produce it. Answer: very quickly.”

“And your deal is?”

“Illegal Characters is offering a financial deal that’s pretty hard to beat – no upfront costs, half of the profits.”

“Oh well,” I said. “I’ll blog about anything interesting and the film I saw today was shit.”

“Outstanding,” said Ben.

And then he/they went away.

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