Interview: Caleb Everett: ‘you know she keeps a diary – and it all goes in’

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A must read if only for the glimpses of ourselves so lyrically vibrant in its wit dripping pages. Read our review in full.

Welcome to Caleb and Gerry’s verbal diary. What’s your first vivid memory of Moston?

As a writer, I would have been about 8, and it’s an elderly neighbour called Marian who used to cut out and save magazine crosswords for me, because life was going that well, even then. She was a sparrow-sized woman, very warm and seemed constantly to be making homemade marmalade from her council house, whilst singing along to Patsy Cline records.

Every year she took her marmalade to be judged at some fete outside of Manchester – which, at the time, seemed quite exotic to me because Moston wasn’t the Rodeo Drive of the North and people tended not to leave without a court order.

Back then I was crippled with shyness so it took a lot to pluck up the courage to ask, “Marian, why do you like marmalade so much?” and she replied “Well, it’s not like jam – it’s just so fascinating.” I knew that the response was funny but I had to jot it down to try and figure out why.

Is it primarily the women you remember as a child?

I don’t really recall many of the men – which, as you know, is a trait that hasn’t deserted me. The men were only in evidence because they seemed to be a favourite topic of conversation for women gathered outside shops on Moston Lane – or at Nan’s over tea and Battenberg.

I suppose I was very attracted to the way that Northern women exchanged stories… and still am.

Was it as flamboyantly operatic as The Street?

Goodness yes. It was a very poor area so eccentricity tended to be about, in abundance.

There was a woman who lived a few doors down. She was a one-armed nail technician, single mother-of-two and a weed dealer. Her life looked like a hen party that never ended and in the mid-90s she achieved net-curtain fame when she appeared on the cover of That’s Life magazine, under the title “him, his brother or his dad – just whose bun was in my oven?” I liked her.

Of course there were my grandparents, whom I lived with later on. Granddad was a labourer and Nan was a barmaid at a local spit ‘n’ sawdust pub, so she’d be keeping The Real Housewives of Moston in-check whilst my Great Aunt was loitering round the pub like a retired Playboy Bunny in a fleece. That all helped as a backdrop, both as a writer and a gay.

Is there enough to make a Mostonation Street, do you think?

From my early years there there will be – The Lady Grey Years. I hadn’t found pubs then… and then we both found the pubs so the diaries disappeared like a cream cracker under the settee.

That’s what I wanted to ask – when did the diaries begin? When was the first inkling of it?

Probably around the age of 10, but it was just notes to get through the dreariness of school. Again, a way of understanding what was going on rather than consciously recording what was going on.

I wasn’t the class clown because of shyness, so the diary was a way of scribbling down the horror of school as something to laugh at later on – largely by draping that tissue-thin veil of fiction over it.

For example, there was an old Irish history teacher at my primary school who would reward children for a right answer by allowing them to give her a foot rub and, if you got it wrong, you’d have to buy her a packet of Monster Munch.

What?! That’s a boundary too far – she was a pure dominatrix.

Oh, I know. It sounds very 1950s kitchen-sink that a teacher might whip her bunions out for a massage but it happened.

However, rather than let that set in as something to feel horrified at, I wrote a horror story inspired by it, which was the first time I was published. It was in an anthology book of children’s stories which I’d love to track down now because I can’t recall it being horror-themed.

Do you remember what the story was about?

It was about a congealed glob of chip fat which had a mind of its own and would inhabit a space on a person’s face – like some ungodly mole – all to turn the host into a thing craving foot rubs. It wasn’t quite HP Lovecraft… it may have been called ‘A Haunted Mask’ but I’m not sure.

The haunted masc 4 masc…

That title’s far more terrifying.

Well, masc 4 masc is indeed terrifying.

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Looking at it now, the only way I got through school was because of occasions which required bunting or Hallmark cards.

So, around Mother’s Day, say, the butch things would ask me to draw something or write a poem for their Mum which meant I escaped mean words or a slap.

Even now, I’ll write a limerick in exchange for a pint.

Was there anything in school which suggested you were being torpedoed into a writing career?

Only incidentally. I started skipping school and spending the day at Moston public lav… not lavatory – library. Freudian slip.

Hmmmm – I don’t think so, but… Was there no mythical teacher who saw you through everything?

No – not a kind word from any of them, but then Lily Lane Primary School had an R.E. teacher who spelt school with a ‘k’ so they probably didn’t know what to do with me.

The librarian filled that mythical teacher role, though. Again, another old dear in a felt hat.

She’d let me checkout books from the adult section. At 10/11, I put down Naked Lunch on the counter to get stamped and she told me, “You can’t take that one as it’s an adult book, but I’m going to turn around now and if it’s not there when I turn back I expect it back there in a week.”

Oh that’s fantastic. So, she certainly spurred you on. How did Moston feel at the age of 10?

It didn’t register much at all. At the age of 10 I was hermetically sealed in my bedroom, overdosing on nostalgia for a time I didn’t belong to.

And still are…

I know. Life might be easier if I knew the last line-up of Sugababes rather than the life and times of Muddy Waters.

Somebody once called me ‘generationally transposed’ and I think that really is the case.

Yes, if you knew the last line to ‘Push the Button’ rather than whole script of The Ladykillers you might get further with some in gay clubs.

It means I can’t even get in on conversation about Coronation Street because I’m waiting for someone to mention Ena Sharples, but hey ho. I’m probably trapped in that time.

We’re both very much stuck in that time.

I know I’ve written, in the past, about Moston as a very aggressive north-of-nowhere place. As if the skip from the bus stop to the front door was like dancing on the lip of a volcano, but I can’t claim it’s worse than anywhere else.

Violence was there if you glanced out of the bedroom window but I didn’t experience too much of it.

It’s interesting isn’t it? When I think of my childhood, for example, I was in a stolen car with my brother when I was 4. Now, I’m not a middle-class person who might be horrified by that story. I would often see lots of fights and I wouldn’t say that my very early childhood was violent – but it was there.

Definitely. I grew up facing a pub called The Lightbowne which was perpetually shut because of people bottling each other – so much so that The Bill used it as a regular spot to film in.

But, as I said, I didn’t experience too much violence… Which is amazing when you think I used to sing Dusty Springfield in the streets.

Perhaps Nan bribed the local bullies to leave me be. It’s the only possible explanation.

Now, talking of Nan. What role did she play in your life? 

She was a towering inspiration and the lights of Manchester forever dimmed when she died. She was gut-wrenchingly funny, incredibly kind – though formidable – and she remains the rhythm of a great deal of my writing and indeed my life.

I’m not sure I’d have kept a diary if I hadn’t moved in with her – or certainly, I’m not sure I’d have developed a finely-tuned ear for dialogue had it not been for her.

Was Nan aware of your delicate ways, in that sense? I mean, she knew the gay within didn’t she?

Yes – but she was used to such ways. She belonged to a generation of women who protected gays when it was profoundly illegal to be so.

The pub my Nan worked at was owned by a chap called Brian, who passed away when I was 5 or 6. He carried a lot of guilt over being gay and my Nan would often shoo the black clouds away for him.

There was a wreath at his funeral, from the barmaids, which spelt out “Brian’s Fairies”.

Someone asked Nan, “Why that?” and she said, “It was our nicknames from him. Charlie had his Angels. Brian has us to help him – so we were Brian’s Fairies.”

She certainly encouraged camp and the imagination that goes with that.

Well, she was camp and imaginative – and, of course, she was gorgeous. When did she know and when did you tell? I suspect the psychic moment was long there.

I should think so.

Because my grandparents had already raised their kids already, there were a lot of discarded 1970s toys to play around with as a kid, like original Star Wars action figures.

I once dragged up Luke Skywalker in a dress made from toilet paper as he was marrying Han Solo in The Death Star.

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You see – I knew romance, even then.

My granddad peered down from watching rugby and said, “What’s the dog (he meant an Ewok) doing in bed with the princess?”

I told him, “That’s her pet to cuddle, in case she gets lonely when Luke and Han go on their honeymoon.”

He really didn’t know what to say, so Nan knelt down with camp relish and said, “Tell me more.”

With that in mind, I can’t imagine they had a fiver on me being the first to make them great grandparents.

But, officially, I was 18 when I “came out” to her. I’d nabbed my first boyfriend by then, but before that I hadn’t been near anybody.

Really? So there were no sexual experiences early on?

Not a tickle. I was terrified of people.

A lack of intimacy?

A lack of interest, really. It was an unspoken agreement between me and the men of Manchester.

Being hermetically sealed may have had me reading James Joyce but it didn’t skill me in flirting or finding out how people actually met other people.

So when you were hermetically sealed were you still keeping a diary?

Yes – but not every day. I’d write every day but the diary was almost a rehearsal for life, rather than writing.

It was anecdotal and gave way to conversation later on. It was a way to train myself not to be shy – or to appear not to be shy.

You went away to America, didn’t you? Tell me how that came about. 

I was 16…

Ooh, so before coming out?

Yes – though I did have a whisper of a sexual encounter in L.A. – it was off Sunset Boulevard rather than behind Moston chippy.

I think Moston chippy is sexier. You could have used chip fat for lube. So how was America, as both a person and as a writer?

I was there for three months and I returned for another three months after a little sojourn in Europe.

It was a planned rebellion. I’d seen my younger brother and my sister both, naturally, go through their teenage rebellious phase and I’d not even pierced my ear so I, sensibly, thought if I was going to do something shocking I’d do it with panache.

So I upped sticks and traveled through America, leaving Moston by saying, “I’m off – this is the last you’ll see of me.”

You still do that. 

I know – but then it was coquettish. Now it’s just a reason for you to roll your eyelashes.

Was writing happening in America?

Yes – I could be on a Greyhound coach for a couple of days so there was plenty of time to write about actual experience.

Shyness had to take a back seat so I could actually get by. I wrote it all in a little book called The Blind Run which hasn’t been released yet.

I’ll probably change the name if it does get released – I think The Blind Run was a discarded Kerouac title and I felt I was doing a Beatnik-Kerouac thing. Albeit on a bus rather than in a Cadillac.

I do remember stopping off for half a day in Kansas during a blizzard and it was like walking out of Judy Garland’s mind.

Darling, you’ve been walking out of Judy Garland’s mind all your life.

I know – but others couldn’t see that during a blizzard.

But it did change you? You didn’t come back a shy, retiring thing?

I arrived back borderline-brassy and the writer in me was solidified.

You arrived back in Moston – was that a bigger culture shock than New York or L.A.?

Moston seemed a lot bigger because I was returning to something I’d missed. Not necessarily Moston but The North – as a Northerner you do miss the corner shop, the frizzle-drizzle rain and chip fat lube.

I don’t suppose it ever really leaves us. If you’re from the North you’re chained to the Moors with George Formby singing you a lullaby. From the cradle to the rave.

Yes – well, George Formby morphs into Myra Hindley in the Northern mindset. Certainly the Mancunian mindset.

Yes. We’re aware of Myra before the alphabet in Manchester – and she’s the first reminder in life to always remember to get your roots done.

After America and landing back here, and back in Moston, was being gay easier?

I still wasn’t meeting up with other gays but I wasn’t shut-off to the idea. I wasn’t going to gay bars but I wasn’t swallowed by self-loathing for wanting to be in them.

At 18, I met my first boyfriend and moved to London to be with him, but it was a tedious spin-cycle of domesticity.

So, you weren’t disco-addicted then?

No – that came later.

I moved back to Manchester when I was 22, so the first time I visited a bar on Canal Street, as an out gay men, would have been then.

It was Churchills Pub and a middle-aged queen, who looked not unlike a seal, approached me to ask, “Not seen you around here before. How old are you?”

I told him and he lisped back, “22? Well, you’re no spring chicken.”

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So, my introduction to the gay scene as a young man was being informed I was getting on.

At 22? You can be a chicken in Liverpool ‘til you’re about 34 – I was. I still am.

Jessica H. Christ, I know.

When did you find hedonism, or start enjoying it?

Around the age of 23. I didn’t wobble into anything by mistake. I made the intellectual decision that hedonism was for me and that the neon of the night could last well into the days, even if it meant working in a stationary shop whilst reeking of gin.

Hedonism isn’t the cheapest sport to become involved with and it really is a shift without end for those who, like us, have never been part-time Saturday night drinkers.

Isn’t it just. Is hedonism important to you, as a writer?

Yes – they’re the best of times and the worst of times and the best of times.

One of my favourite writers is Herbert Huncke, who managed to write alongside a life of alcohol, heroin and experience. He popped his moccasins at the age of 91 in the Chelsea Hotel waiting for a heroin drop-off – which he would have written about beautifully as one of your actual trip advisors.

So the language of hedonism fascinates me far more than a poem about a daffodil, no matter how beautiful or symbolic it may be.

We both lost quite a few friends over the last few years. Do you see yourself as a sort of keeper of their flame?

I hadn’t until editing the diaries down for publication, at which point I was glad it was crammed with so much incident – rather than entries saying I was depressed or that I’d wolfed down a marathon of Bargain Hunt on UK Gold.

That’s one of the things I love about it – it’s like me remembering. It’s one of the treasures of it.

You know how atrocious my memory is, so it was lovely for me to remember some of these things too. The chapbook was editing to purposefully keep in the voices who have since joined the feathered choir.

The funniest bits in it have little to do with me – I just happened to be near some brilliant madness from some fascinating people. But then that is a diary.

Do you see yourself as a diarist? It’s a particular kind of writing – Orton, Pepys, Williams. There’s a strong litany to it.

I no longer keep a diary so I can’t claim to be a diarist. I stopped keeping a diary when Nan died, almost two years ago. There’s a poetry to her incidentally becoming the narrative of the diaries.

Besides, there’s been so little to write about this year and nobody wants a lockdown diary about how many times I’ve been blocked on Grindr.

I may keep a diary again at some point in the future but, for now, I just remember Tallulah Bankhead saying, “Only good girls keep diaries – bad girls don’t have the time.”

Which brings us back to the beginning where you tend to be on the look out for vivid eccentricity rather than beans on toast. Where are you after this – the next book or as a writer?

There’s quite a lot ready to go: short stories, a full-length memoir, some poetry and a couple of plays.

The next book will probably be a collection of short stories but will have a link to the diaries in being called Last Exit to Moston.

So the next won’t be diaries, but will you publish more?

I hope so – there’s nearly a decade which has been edited down into a lengthy tome and is split into three sections – Son of a Panto Dame, Not If You’re with Her and She Used to Be a Top.

The last one sounds like the story of your trade, luv. That’s what I wanted to ask – because a diary is so personal but there is such eavesdropping qualities or not qualities, depending on mindset – have you ever had quirky or annoyed people approaching this adventure?

Yes – I once had a queen warn people off me with with the travel advisory “you know she keeps a diary – and it all goes in”.

It’s quite the self-important statement because, when it comes to my diary, the witty are named but the guilty are protected.

I wouldn’t want to think our every utterances were being recorded on a night out. Could you imagine? We’d never work again.

We don’t. I suppose if you ever want to work again you shouldn’t title your next book Manchester Isn’t the Greatest City in the World.

You’re quite right. Let’s go for one of our coffees.

The Moston Diaries is out now from all good bookshops or direct from the publisher.

About the author

Gerry Potter is a poet, playwright, director, actor, and both creator and destroyer of the infamous gingham diva, Chloe Poems. His published works are included in both the poetry and philosophy collections at Harvard University, and the portrait documentary My Name is Gerry Potter premiered at Homotopia in 2015. An Everyman Youth Theatre alumnus, National Museums Liverpool lists him amongst the city’s leading LGBTQ+ icons.

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