Cult Q & A: Paul Burston

❉ Author of The Black Path and host of award-winning LGBT salon Polari.

Hailed by Attitude as “easily one of the most important commentators of his generation,” Paul Burston is an author and journalist whose books include the critically-acclaimed novels Shameless (2001), which was shortlisted for the State of Britain award, Star People (2006), Lovers & Losers (2007), which was shortlisted for a Stonewall Award and The Gay Divorcee (2009). He was shortlisted for ‘Journalist of the Year’ at the European Diversity Awards 2011 and the Stonewall Awards 2012.

Paul has written for many publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Time Out, The Times and The Sunday Times. TV and radio credits include Newsnight, Womans Hour, Night Waves, Films of Fire and The One Show.

Paul is the founder and host of the award-winning LGBT salon Polari and creator of The Polari First Book Prize, and his latest novel The Black Path was published to critical acclaim (‘An intense, tightly calibrated thriller’ – The Huffington Post) by Accent Press in 2016.

Photo of Paul Burston by Krystyna FitzGerald-Morris.

Tell us a bit about your background, where did you grow up and how did your environment shape you?

I grew up in South Wales in the 70s and early 80s – a land of rugby and real men. I hated rugby and wasn’t considered a real man but a “fucking tog” which is local parlance for “homosexual gentleman”. I couldn’t wait to escape.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

David Bowie.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

You will never be David Bowie but one day you’ll no longer be a piece of teenage wildlife and things will work out okay.

What are your best and worst qualities?

I’m bloody minded – which is my best and worst quality, I think. I’m very stubborn, but I tend to get things done.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Working as a linen porter in the laundry room deep in the bowels of an enormous posh hotel in Piccadilly. All the dirty laundry comes down a chute in the ceiling and you sort it out into sheets, face cloths, towels, etc. It’s filthy and sweaty and there’s no job satisfaction because the job is never done. But it made me understand Samuel Beckett and existentialism, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Who were your heroes growing up?

David Bowie, Kate Bush and Debbie Harry.

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

Either Bowie’s appearance of TOTP singing ‘Starman’. Or The Naked Civil Servant. I was ten at the time it was first screened and I was horrified by it. The next day at school everyone who used to be called a “fucking tog” was now referred to as “Quentin”. But it was a landmark piece of TV, with an astonishing performance by John Hurt as Quentin Crisp.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Yes. Very.

What was the last film that you watched?

Moonlight. It blew me away.

What film could you watch every day?

Life of Brian. It was so on target then and is so on target today – not just in its send-up of religious fervour but its mockery of political idealism and the infighting of the left. What’s left of Corbyn’s Labour party really is The Judean People’s Front. Or the People’s Front of Judea. (Splitters! – Ed.)

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

Cabaret. It’s influence on ’70s glam rock and Bowie in particular is enormous. It’s all so “divinely decadent dahling”

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

Ryan Reynolds, Colton Haynes, Henry Cavill and Matt Bomer in a husband-swapping “gay adult art film”.

Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?

Nocturnal Animals. All style, little substance. And I loved Ford’s previous film, so was doubly disappointed.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Station to Station by David Bowie. It sounded like the future then and still sounds like nothing else today, especially the stunning opening title track.

Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

Bowie – The Thin White Duke ’76. A bootleg I bought in High Street Kensington Market in the ’80s.

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

My MacBook because it has all my work on it and would be expensive and almost impossible to replace. Or if it has to be a physical book, Stephen King’s On Writing, which has some of the best advice for writers ever written.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

For me, it’s something you can return to time and time again and not just enjoy but find something new to enjoy. It not only withstands repetition but grows in stature each time it’s revisited.

What are you reading at present?

What Alice Knew by TS Cotterell – a truly gripping psychological thriller.

“Homophobia hasn’t gone away. It’s still there. And it’s still destroying people’s lives.”

You were one of the founding members of Attitude magazine and contribute to Boyz, and have been a gay activist for many years. What are your thoughts on how gay issues are addressed in the press?

In many ways, things are far better now than they were when I started out in the late 80s. For many years I was the only journalist in the mainstream press with the word “gay’ above my name every week (this was in Time Out, where I was Gay, then Gay & Lesbian, then LGBT Editor for a total of 20 years). But you do still see homophobic nonsense in the right wing press – the Daily Mail, obviously – but also the Sunday Times, which I stopped reading because of the idiotic Camilla Long, Rod Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson and various other commentators who think it’s okay to make digs at LGBT people because apparently we all have it so easy now. Try walking down any high street holding another man’s hand and see how easy it is. Or look at the numbers of LGBT people with drink, drug or mental health problems. Homophobia hasn’t gone away. It’s still there. And it’s still destroying people’s lives.

Can you tell our readers about the books you’ve written so far, and how well has your latest novel The Black Path been received?

I wrote four comic novels, most notably Shameless and The Gay Divorcee, which were very well received and, in the case of Shameless, achieved cult status. It came out in 2001 and I still get emails from people who’ve just read it for the first time and are convinced it’s their story! The Black Path is a change in direction. It’s a psychological thriller about an army wife and her husband, who are separated by war and haunted by events from the past. There’s a cute gay soldier in it and a feisty woman called Siân and nothing is quite what it seems. Changing direction mid-career was a daunting prospect, but it’s done extremely well. It’s had great reviews, been praised by some of my favourite crime writers and it was a bestseller at WH Smith. I’ve a lot to be thankful for.

Who has inspired you over the years?

Bowie, who taught me to be brave and take risks. My personal tutor at college, Gerard Boynton, who encouraged me to write. And my mum, who has endured many hardships in her life but who always battles on. I get my survivor’s instinct from her.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

My stepdad is a plumber and builder and the hardest working man I know. He always told me to do what makes me happy and be prepared to work hard at it. He’s 80 and still taking his own advice.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?

The late Michael Mason was the first editor to give me regular work, interviewing people for Capital Gay newspaper. Without him I probably wouldn’t have ended up in journalism, which led to everything else.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

No, I don’t. I met Bowie and Debbie Harry and they were both absolutely wonderful!

What would you like to be your epitaph?

He lived, he loved, he wrote, he died peacefully.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Vodka martini!

What are your three favourite cities?

London, Rio, Barcelona. I also love Hastings but it’s a town, not a city. I like to be near the sea.

What do you do to chill out?

I go to the gym or I watch box sets – everything from The Walking Dead to Stranger Things to House of Cards to Teen Wolf.

Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?

I’ve nearly died twice, and I’ve dived with great white sharks. These two facts are not related.

What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

A good day’s writing. Nothing beats it. It might only be 500 words, but if the words are the right ones, it’s been a good day.

What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?

Creating Polari and The Polari First Book Prize to support emerging LGBT+ writers. I started out as an activist. I still have a strong sense of community and I believe in giving something back.

You’ve been hosting the Polari Salon for some time now. What’s it been like? Can you tell us a little about it?

Polari started in 2007 in a room above a pub in Soho. Ten years on, we’re at the Southbank Centre and also tour regularly, funded by Arts Council England. I always tell people to put aside their preconceptions of what a literary night is. To me, it’s a night of cabaret in which the performers happen to be writers. They might be well know – we’ve had people like Sarah Waters, Patrick Gale and Val McDermid – or they might be reading their work on stage for the first time. But it’s a celebration of LGBT+ writing in all its many forms. On any given night there’ll be humour, literary fiction, poetry, maybe a bit of autobiography – always a good mix of styles and content. It’s a lot of work, programming and hosting this many events a year. Last year I put together over 35 events! But I love it. And it’s a really fun night out!

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m working on a new novel – another psychological thriller, which I hope to have finished by the summer. And I’m planning a huge tour to mark Polari’s tenth birthday later this year. I also blog about books regularly.

How can our readers discover more about you and your work?

People can find me at www.paulburston.com, or on social media – @paulburston or facebook.com/paulburston


❉ For upcoming Polari events see www.southbankcentre.co.uk or visit the Polari on Tour and Polari on Sea pages.

❉ ‘The Black Path’ is published by Accent Press and is available in paperback and Kindle.

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