Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney
rozk

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Dead cafes and the spirit of the staircase

Sometimes the worse thing about losing something quite trivial is the fact that you don't get know you are losing it until it is gone for good.

As quite a lot of you know, the Patisserie Cappucetto was my central London 'office' for most of the last two decades. They did good coffee and stenciled smiley sun faces on the cappucino. They did a good toasted bacon and avocado sandwich and a pretty good all day breakfast; latterly they did perfectly decent cheap pasta. They were the place whose cakes were good enough that, when I feel like cheating on my diabetes, I could eat them as a special treat and it not become a dangerous habit. And I was sort of friendly with the staff, especially the scarlet-haired Marika who put me onto the address of the best deli in Santa Monica.

It cropped up in a review I wrote some years ago THE BOOK OF SODOM
by and ed. Paul Hallam
(Verso 290 pp.)

A QUEER READER
ed. Patrick Higgins
(4th. Estate 373 pp. 14.99)

I used to meet my drag hustler friends in the Pollo on Old Compton Street. It was convenient for the Golden Girl, where most of them worked - only occasionally would DC Del Skipper lift them for importuning or deception as they went for a quick bowl of pasta. I was on his shit list for going bail, so it was a handy sidle into Soho from Charing Cross Road - as was Maison Bertaux, or Capuccetto.

The new gay-male-positive Soho, made viable by the value of the pink pound in a recession, leaves me cold and in the cold; the boy bars may welcome the odd glamly thin boydyke for atmosphere, but middle-aged, fat and transexual don't cut it. I still go to Pollo or Presto for pasta, to Bertaux or Capuccetto for coffee.

The relevance of this to the current rise of gay publishing will be obvious; it is pleasing that there are so many new anthologies of lesbian and gay relevance, worrying that they exclude whole categories of queer experience. When the recession is over, and the pink pound less valuable, those of us silenced in the boom, won't lose much...Accordingly, this will not be an unbiased review.

Patrick Higgins calls his anthology of quotations queer - modishly rather than sincerely. He praises the drag queens who fought the police at the Stonewall bar in order to sneer at Ian McKellen for naming a bourgeois lobby group Stonewall, but, with the exception of the odd Eighteenth Century molly, drag queens are otherwise absent from his chaste pages, as are the baby butches who hurled bottles alongside them.

Higgins is not big on solidarity; in the fluent but piss-elegant introductions to his chronological and geographical chapters, he sneers at most gay scholarship and all gay organisers. He is down on the cult of gay martyrs; as a Cambridge don, he has, of course, expertise in suffering.

Higgins takes an essentialist position when he wants to include iconic Classical poems about buggery, and an anti-essentialist, social constructionist one when he wants to deny the idea of gay community. I was one of fifty mourners at a funeral the other day; if there is not a lesbian and gay community, I don't know who all the other black-leather clad wraiths stalking round the memorial gardens were.

Higgins excludes too much for his book to be satisfactory; it is too much aimed at the sort of people he would want at dinner-parties. It is worth picking up, and browsing in, simply because Higgins is the sort of person who does a paid job well according to his lights; there are, after all, positive obsessive traits that go with piss-elegance.

Higgins is good on homophobia, from the fathers of the church to John Junor; one worries about the health of elderly gents who get so upset about other people's genitals. It's a religious thing, I suppose - I wouldn't understand. The trouble with ecumenicism is that, the more Christians, Jews and Muslims start to love each other, the more time they will have for hating the rest of us.

Paul Hallam's anthology is more overtly personal than the Higgins; his excellent introductory section - a musing on the myth of Sodom, on his youth and on walking the rounds of his bit of male gay London - has conversational ease and a balancing underlay of prickliness. Where Higgins offers a guide to homophobic idiocy, Hallam shows how the myth of Sodom has been used against gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians - we get extended ecclesiastical rants and accounts of stonings.

His choices show how acceptance of, glorying in, the Sodomite tag have been a strategy for unapologetic identity down the ages; one of the few contemporary pieces is Sue Golding's essay on buying new address books after funerals and on the necessity of not looking back.

Where Higgins' slick little number with its Pierre et Gilles cover is resolutely square, Hallam unflashily opts for queer ludic post-modernism. He describes his construction of his own identity from texts in a narrative that frames them, while Golding refuses mourning as a way of mourning more passionately.

Yet Hallam's book has old-fashioned virtues as well, virtues that will keep it read. His poignant account of adolescence and Oxford makes one long for later material- makes me want to read how I met him around Oxford GLF a few months later.

Higgins's book undercuts itself by denying through exclusion that shared experience which informs the act of reading it; Hallam is most interested in his own life and experience, but not at the expense of excluding others. His control of the games he is playing reminds us and himself that we are all in this thing together. which got me the best compliment I ever received for a piece of journalism - Lorna Sage said Angela Carter would have liked it.

A couple of weeks ago, signs went up in Cappucetto announcing it would be shut for a fortnight for renovation, and I registered this as an inconvenience. Yesterday, it reopened as a replacement for the sibling restaurant over the way which has closed down. No more coffee, or cakes, or breakfast, or sandwiches - I am going to have to get used to going to Patisserie Valerie or the Amalfi instead, where no-one knows me and I have an entire new menu to learn, places that have their own long-term resident bohemians of whom I am not one.

A propos of being a boho intellectual, I go, occasionally, to a pub meeting for writers and journos where we have intense conversations about writers and movies and agents. In the course of one of these this evening, we got discussing Rosemary's Baby and whether there were analogues in folk-lore. I suggested the birth of Merlin, as failed antichrist, but also remarked that we don't know because most of the collectors of folklore were also censors of it. Though, I went on to remark, the Grimms left a lot of violence in that is also sexual symbolism - dancing to your death in red hot iron shoes is fairly clearly symbolic of the punishment of female sexual energy. And Charles accused me of crypto-Freudianism and someone else said something and I didn't get to do the particular snappy comeback that was needed.

Which is that once upon a time and now again to some extent, people used sexual symbols quite consciously - it is not Freudian to say this, because Freud is a consequence of the suppression of bawdy and the reform of manners. Protestantism disliked encoded symbolism anyway, and when it was popular and sexy even more so. A lot of people have lost the ability to pick up sexual symbolism - it probably helps me to have been brought up Catholic and queer. It is interesting, though, that the ability to read symbols gets conflated with the assumption that symbolism is unconscious in folklore. Once upon a time, flowers could be bawdy - 'which liberal shepherds call a grosser name, but our chaste maids do dead men's fingers call them' - and now they are just the language of sentiment.

Rants as requested will follow as will some thoughts on recently seen movies...
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