Time Out Reviews III

Mandy McCartin Publ. Editions Aubrey Walter

This volume of paintings and drawings is as wiry and emaciated as the artist herself. And art like this does not come cheap. Those who have viewed any of McCartin's work realise a darker imagining of life exists than even pieces such as 'Travellers' and 'Site Specific' portray. There is a violence in her work that is hardly ulterior, and there is an ostensible empathy with the London underclass. Even the portraits of lesbian lust are tinged, among the umber, saffron, purple, vermilion and Prussian blue hues, with a squalid and solid density that eclipses the dull shine of a street light. What marks McCartin's art apart is its tumultuous essence.
But of all of the paintings here, probably the most disturbing is McCartin's 1992 'Self Portrait'. It is a sombre, polluted piece that deeply punctured my psyche as I viewed it. It is so incongruous with the majority of her portfolio, and left me with a penetrating disquiet. How can someone create such elan from the charcoal of the twilight world of lesbianism and yet present themselves to the world as such a wretched being? Is the reality really as stark as McCartin's oils show it? While her use of colour is faintly surreal it is thoroughly typical of its subject. You might accuse her of creating a false impression but this is exactly how Soho looks at 3am after too many vodkas or E's. This is precisely how it feels to walk around cheap corridors of London. It isn't just 'from' the street: it's the concrete that lines the route. Only for that price, I wished for more gravel and sand.

Marybeth Hamilton Publ. Pandora

I wasn't ever stuck on Mae West, preferring the buffoonery of Laurel & Hardy to the sumptuous curves and blatant come-on style. Leave that to Gypsy Rose, I thought. But swivel my hips, what an astounding surprise "The Queen Of Camp" turned out to be.
Hamilton's truly insightful biography is exhaustingly researched, lifting the skirts of vaudeville and placing West not on the pedestal of reputation, but within the social maelstrom of theatre at the turn of the century. The book is only 230-odd pages, but each chapter has between thirty and sixty footnotes: the spine on my copy began to give way during Chapter 9...
Hamilton's fluid writing betrays an intense love of her subject, so it seemed quite appropriate to lap up every morsel of this literary feast.
While maintaining an extreme level of homage and deleivering an unfailing historical appraisal, Hamilton does not hail the mighty queen beyond her flaws. While keeping a sharp edge, it makes for a far more gentle rendition of a life beset by marital, personal and social rituals. In addition, any gay folk reading this would have plenty of reasons to pick it up, not least for the sections on "The Drag" and "Sextette".
This book is a treasure, not only for its portrayal of an ironic, brusque woman who left no documents or diaries for us to analyse and devour, but as a book that stands astride the gay and theatrical worlds like a female Colossus.
For a first book, Hamilton has proved a talent worthy of acclaim. I'm not saying the book made a heroine out of West for me, but thanks to the author, she now has a corner for herself, full of admiration.

Dr Julia Bailey & Claire Barnes

'I want you to review a leaflet,' said Mr Burston. Excuse me? What is there to review? Oh, it's a lesbian sexual health leaflet. It's very momentous then. And I'd have to go to The Girl Bar to get one. Being crammed into a tiny, stuffy basement with countless others and being charged £2.10 for a glass of acrid red wine was not my idea of heaven but off I toddled, my Trichomonas Vaginalis simply itching at the prospect of new knowledge.
The motto for this new endeavour is 'Touching, fucking, sucking and sex toys' which hardly trips off the tongue. The leaflet is admittedly extensive, covering almost every aspect of your elastic, self-cleaning vagina, your rigid anus and every piece of bacteria therein. It's hardly light or pleasant reading, but pretty damned essential for any 'women who have sex with women.'
This information is provided in bite-sized snippets, written in an easy, friendly style but it didn't really need the cheesy photographs. There's also a line drawing of a woman's bits but it's nothing new for anyone who has ever read Sister Marion's tampon pamphlet. I was disappointed that the notes on cervical and breast cancer were so limited and that information for those 'lesbians' who sleep with men was non-existent. Unfortunately, the leaflet is currently only available from sexual health clinics which seems like slamming the bedroom door after the concubine has bolted. But, if you're passing by, grab one and leave them on your conquest's bedside table, just in case you really are a dirty little lesbian.

Liz McQuiston Publ. Phaidon Press

You know me: I never recommend a book that would make a massive dent in a dole cheque, but here's a rare exception. When this superlative collection of feminist and lesbian 'graphic expression' was delivered, I had to fight women off in order to get a peek at it. Anyone who came within six yards of it grabbed it, plonked down and pored over every gloriously reproduced leaflet, poster, badge and banner from those heady days of activism and campaigning, now sadly lost because 'we've got everything we want'. Once they got past the lurid pink and yellow dust jacket they didn't read much of the text (I would advise against skipping it though: it's purely sagacious), but all of them tried to smuggle the book out of my flat. This is not an easy task: the book is heavy (the paper quality is luscious) and measures 10 x 12 inches.
If you haven't got a sturdy coffee table, get one and put this book slap bang in the middle of it. Not only is it a replete reference book, but it also shows the acumen and wisdom of women, gives proof of our artistic propensity and will provide a spirited talking point for yonks. Don't wait for the paperback: buy it in glorious hardback and savour every page.

Rosa Ainley Publ. Cassell

Yet another Cassell title hits the shelves and an extortionately-priced one at that. What Is She Like? is all about identifying ourselves and analysing our experiences; something of an eternal quest in the community and one that many publishers seem eager to cash in on. The idea is to peek at how lesbians view themselves in terms of "politics, leisure pursuits, fashion and affiliation." Wide ranging? In depth?
Ainley (better known as an editor than a writer) has included the list of questions she used on her subjects, from "What influence does your lesbianism have on your life?" and "What does being a lesbian mean to you?" to "Do you see yourself as par of a particular group of lesbians?" There's even a whole chapter devoted to "What do SM dykes wear to work?" and in case you're wondering, it's platform sandals.
Ainley didn't tell all of her subjects that she was a lesbian, but admits (over at least three pages) to feeling "mildly surprised, resigned or annoyed" that other women didn't suss her out. Her appraisal of the lesbian scene is either totally out of date or completely out of whack. It isn't brilliantly written either, swinging between bog-average observations and terribly psuedo-intellectual philosophy.
It's interesting enough if you're into either introspection and retrospection or just like those old dyke tales. Still, you could simply ask your friends what they think being a lesbian is all about. For me, it certainly isn't about spending £14 on two hundred pages that tells me absolutely nothing new.

All ©Megan Radclyffe Publ. Time Out Magazine 1995-1998

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