The Importance of Being Fabulous: In conversation with Gerry Potter

Caleb Everett
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Manchesterford Diaries Introduction

Tuesday 4th November 2014, Manchester (Excerpt)

Finished reading Gerry’s latest The Chronicles of Folly Butler . We’ve already drank Manchester under the table celebrating the publication – though we probably did the same when the first word was set to popper-stained-paper. The L’ Oreal and Hardy of Canal Street. Laughing, dancing and being berated by right-wing snakes in Thatcher wigs for not being 9-5 hod carriers.

The book, her theatre verse genre defying opus, is – quite possibly – the best thing he’s ever written. Usually when a piece of Art moves one, one never has to worry about saying anything to the Artist. They’re likely to be a stranger or perhaps even dead. Besides, compliments don’t come as naturally to queens as a malignant thrust with a feather-boa-pout. But this … well … it’s one hell of a book. One hell of a poet. One hell of a sister.

Interview with Gerry Potter

Gerry Potter is a poet, playwright, director, actor and both creator and destroyer of the infamous gingham diva and queer icon Chloe Poems. A favourite son of Manchester and his home town Liverpool, he has a reputation for putting his Scouse voice on the line and is strong on poetry and strong on the causes of poetryism. Caleb Everett caught up with him to discuss his new book and … well, a great deal.

In the introduction to your new book, The Chronicles of Folly Butler, you write this is the fifth of 10 books and then you promise that you’ll never write again. Why?

The whole point of the ‘ten books thing’ is, and this could be me being incredibly wrong but I seldom am, is that you can exhaust writing. In much the same way a dancer or a footballer can live their professional life really quickly I think a writer probably can too. Creativity stops in a particular way.

For example, when you’re a teenager your creativity is far different to your creativity at 52. I think if I last for those 10 years – and I’ve done five so I’m not doing badly – I might not ever want to write again. The whole creative process has a cap, if you like. It might seem a bit policed but … I don’t think it is. I think it’s about saying, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ Story of your life and imagination – therefore limitless – but only make it last for 10 books in 10 years. Get it in one moment, albeit an elongated moment. A 10-year moment. It might take less or more than 10 years but it’s definitely going to be 10 books. After that, just rest and enjoy the rest of your life, if you have one.

You won’t be that old then.

No, but I might be that dead then. I might even be deluding myself. I could stop writing before then and get into heroin – you never know.

These books are a full commitment to keeping the net curtains open so everyone can gaze into your life. How important are the lies of fiction to writing an autobiography? Certainly an autobiography written through the glittery language of poetry where you can, perhaps, be a bit more guarded.

I think lying is massively important to all writing. If you’re writing a play you’re creating a series of lies that tells the truth. My books, no matter how absurd some of the notions are in them, are autobiography – so I’m not lying within these books. As the books go on I’m going to cover darker and more brilliant truths, so one of the books will cover a very dark place. Maybe not the next one but the one after that will cover something I’ve not tackled within myself, so that will be a hellfire of truth. My writing is about telling a very organic storytelling truth but it’s also about telling the imaginative truth, which can be construed as a kind of lying but it’s not.

Lots of things happen to you as a child, things very physical and real. As a child with such powers of imagination you distort and change. Not them – yourself. You become any number of people or superheroes or characters. In a sense that can be called lying but I don’t call the pro-active use of imagination to be lying, they’re colourful theatrics of the truth. The physical and the imaginative story are, I think, both as real as each other.

I was thinking of your mum’s lavish line about lying. You were both arguing and she brought it to a close by saying, ‘We’re all made of lies but remember Gerard – lies are made of truth.’

She was right. She said it in a rickety raucous way to get out of me being right and her being wrong – because she was lying – but she hit the nail on the head. My mum also told me nobody is evil.

She’s right. Nobody is inherently good or evil – actions can be good or evil, not people. Intellectually it’s a flimsy get-out-clause.

Exactly. You don’t know the history behind the action or what created that human being. I think what my mum was trying to say was that there’s a kind of liberation in not believing in good and evil. She couldn’t have put it like that but I think that’s what she meant. Suggesting, in a very intellectual way, there is another way of thinking and if you do that you’ll feel better about things. It’s very maternal on a different level but I’ve never heard any other mother say that. She didn’t like the word ‘forgiving’ and knew sorry doesn’t matter – it’s important but my mum never said sorry once. I was always very impressed by that.

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She talked great truths a lot of the time. Even though she had, what idiots would call, a limited intelligence she spoke widely about a lot of things so, in effect, you actually couldn’t really pin her down to simply some version of ‘right and wrong’. She was profoundly Catholic but didn’t live by that. I mean, she never called for Myra Hindley to be strung up. A lot of what I write comes from that… her bias of life. She lost four kids and yet never believed in ‘right and wrong’. She never said it was wrong that she lost four kids.

Your mother, and particularly that grief that swept through your Scottie Road home, is a huge part of the introduction to this book. In that you reveal who Folly Butler is. She’s been constant throughout your work, so was revealing the identity of Folly like the weight of the Crimean War being lifted off your shoulders?

No, because it was always part of the plan. Folly Butler is a small poem in the first book, Planet Young, and Folly Butler has lived with me forever. She’s been mentioned and has been lots of things in the previous books but it was planned. The 10 people who’ve bought all of the books will now go, ‘Ooh, that’s who Folly is.’

For me it’s freed up the next couple of books. The Chronicles of Folly Butler is the joining of the path across the stormy waters. It now makes all five books make a little bit more sense – not wholly but more. There are lots of characters that we’ll get to know more but this is the big reveal, if you like. You see, it’s all one book. In a sense The Chronicles of Folly Butler is a slight piss-take of The Chronicles of Narnia. That’s a Christian fable and this is a kind of lapsed Catholic fable. In the way that the Narnia books always pick up things from previous books, that’s what these books are doing.

There’s a character in Planet Young called Paulo. He’s in the play at the end of the book where I say goodbye to Chloe. He’s going to pop up again. In fact he’s quite important because Paulo is the most handsome I could ever be.

Your own Dorian Gray?

Yes and he’ll crop up again. I think what The Chronicles does is it says, ‘This is what these books are. Not just intermittent tales of life.’ The whole plan is, one day, if 11 or 12 people read all of the books they’ll find all of the links. Like a magic literary jigsaw. Because I’m writing them they make sense to me, but this book is where they start to make sense to other people.

‘The Effeminate’, an old Chloe Poems epic, ends the book. You had a rather touching goodbye with Chloe in Planet Young though she too has shunted her mug in since then. She still has a fan base so is it ever tempting to pop the bobble wig back on for a one-off performance?

She was and is still well known, much more than I am but … no. If somebody said here’s £25,000, I would do it, but that isn’t going to happen.

You once told to me that retiring Chloe was about not becoming ‘old drag’.

Yeah, it sounds terrible and queeny of me, but I look terrible in makeup now. My face has changed into a handsome, rugged, middle-aged headmaster’s. It’s rounder too, so makeup just doesn’t suit. Chloe certainly wasn’t the most beautiful of women but she thought she was. So, I don’t want to present my work through a death mask, because that was never what the work was. The work was always punchy and upbeat and optimistic no matter how dark the subject matter. Chloe, for me, was the punky new wave end of me. The idea she became old is the same idea as punk becoming old – she is the eternal teenager.

What’s your relationship like with the Chloe part of you now?

Even though she was raging when I killed her off, I think she’d understand it. You need not just a lot of young energy to be Chloe Poems – and  don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of energy – but reeling raw energy and that’s gone.

Chloe was the kind of character who would strap semtex to herself and blow up the Queen, and that’s precisely the character I created. That’s what she’d do to make her point. People would believe Chloe would do that, but if she got old people wouldn’t believe it. That young, optimistic – deluded even – sense of opinion and self would be eroded by looking like an old drag queen. So, she could never become cuddly.

She’ll always be as cuddly as a cactus. I suppose there is something off-putting about seeing a 60-year old Pete Shelley, looking like a space hopper, singing ‘Orgasm Addict’. Even if she’ll never appear on stage again do you enjoy writing in Chloe’s voice for your books?

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I love using her voice to narrate. When I need to conjure her up in writing I do it, perhaps, in a better way than I ever could being her. Apart from the poems, everything she did onstage was improvised and I never knew what would come out of her mouth! But now I can control what she’s saying. She’s in my book Fifty and narrates a story there. Chloe is stuck in a holdall under a bed and she knows she is. She’s pissed off and that’s a really good angel. ‘I’m in a fucking hold all – that bastard has jammed me in here, under his bed and there’s not even any poppers in the bag. Calls himself a gay!’

I think that’s far more fascinating, for her to still be young and still fighting against something. Maybe fighting against being in a holdall but it suits her. Those poems, such as ‘The Queens Sucks Nazi Cock’ and ‘Celebrities are Shit’, live on still. She was before celebrity culture and at the forefront of something that was very punk so she’d hate what’s going on now. Really, I did her a favour.

Chloe was a hedonist and hedonism run through all five books, in very different ways. In, the second book, Planet Middle Age you have the phrase ‘creative hedonism’ and note you didn’t just happen across hedonism but made a conscious choice to explore it. Are you still exploring hedonism?

Yes. Chloe was an absolute manifestation of hedonism and, apart from when I was doing shows in Edinburgh, I was completely off my head all the time. So really killing Chloe off was so I could live! My relationship with hedonism is a lot like my relationship with narcissism – it’s changed slightly. I think hedonism is a partying form of narcissism. You drink and imbibe drunks which elevate you to the best you can possibly be. Well, in my case that’s what it is. I’m a party animal, love being the happiest I can be, and sometimes you need stimulants to do that. Chloe was a physical manifestation of that thing. I’m a very happy narcissist and I was a very happy hedonist.

Your explore narcissism in your new book. How has your opinion of that changed?

To say you’re going to write 10 books about yourself and then never write again is a very narcissistic statement to make. You have to be aware you’re doing that and making that statement. I’m aware and I like it. My version of narcissism is like my version of hedonism in that it is the uncovering and the understanding of yourself, which is the most beautiful thing you can do for yourself.

For example, I love dancing and I love dancing off my head, so for me there’s no better sense of myself than when I’m doing that. When I’m doing it I’m completely aware of that. My narcissism is about understanding the very best and the very worst of yourself which a slight departure from the version of narcissism we’re often told about – which is meant to be cruel. My narcissism is actually very generous and empathic.

The misunderstanding is that you look in a mirror and love yourself. I do love myself but I am my own mirror. I know that when I’m having a great time people around me are having a great time. Though they’re as much to blame for that as me.

The book has a lot of blues music wafting through it and the introduction plays out like a 12-bar blues song. I adore the line about blues music being the ‘socialism of the soul’. It’s not Mississippi blues but a Scouse blues. Why did you choose the blues?

The blues is profoundly narcissistic. Constantly looking at itself and telling you what it thinks of itself at you. Sometimes it’s dark and brooding and painful, then sometimes it’s remarkably joyous and dancing. That’s me.

The introduction to the last book, Fifty, was largely about Sylvester, whereas this one is very Bessie Smith. It bellows at the top of its voice the best and worst bits of my humanity and experience. It was a joy to write. I thought it was going to be difficult to write a bluesy intro but it wasn’t. I am blues and disco and show tunes.

The introduction is set in my favourite place in the world. The derelict Dock Road. If you see it – that red brick shining on a midsummer’s day – you’re not on this planet. You’re somewhere else. It’s yours and it’s been attacked by aliens – this planet – but it is yours … and it is an absolute blues. There are huge swathes of machinery that don’t work, the broken ships, yet somehow it’s still stunning. It’s visual and eclectic and musical, so that was the blues tune in my head. It was me down at the Mersey-sippi.

It wasn’t difficult to transfer the blues to the Liverpool Docks. It’s so full of black history and deeply painful black history. I’m not saying I’ve written about that but knowing your city is instrumental in savagery is a blues.

The wrong side of the blues.

Yeah, the responsible side. Even though I don’t touch upon it too much you have that in there as well. It just felt naturally organic. Everyone’s life is a blues. Once you come to terms with the blues there’s no going back. My favourite saying is one of mine, narcissistic bitch, and it’s a blues saying. It was something I said once on stage as Chloe to someone who was trying to trip me up. I simply said, ‘It’s a world – things happen.’ That’s a very blues statement and you can never, ever go back once you’ve said that. Can’t lead a positivia life where everything is great. Once you’ve come to terms with the blues and that statement you know terrible things can happen. You can either get through them or you don’t – both things are right.

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Aside from over 70 poems, an epilogue to the last book and an introduction to this genre-defying opus, there are three autobiographical plays in the book. ‘Standard Lamp and the Poet’ is a blues opera that charts the nervous breakdown of a poet in a world becoming increasingly more right-wing. Without asking the chef to give away his recipe where did that particular play come from?

‘The Standard Lamp and the Poet’ is about a nervous breakdown brought on by the Bourgeois Zeitgeist. People call it neo-liberalism and I’m bored with clever phrases. People get Bourgeois Zeitgeist far quicker then neo-liberalism. It’s just socialists being clever and sometimes socialism being clever is its own downfall. We’re in the middle of the most horrific Bourgeois Zeitgeist ever. We’re drowning in a torrent of light balsamic drizzles. The play is about that. About a nervous breakdown which I’ve nearly had, about the pressure of living in the epicentre of that Zeitgeist and it’s a complete Beckettian blues.

The poet has a breakdown. Even though he didn’t write The Iron Lady he thinks if someone had offered him enough money he would have written it, so he dives into a maelstrom of doubt. That’s the crux of the play – so that’s what the breakdown is about. He might have put the smile on the face of Meryl Streep’s Thatcher who was smiling that half-smirk on the side of buses while food banks were opening. That’s what triggers the breakdown and it’s narcissistic because the poet’s talking to the lamp, which is him. His more conservative self trying to convince him he wouldn’t have written it when he knows he might. Now the difference between me and that character is that I know I would never have written The Iron Lady given the opportunity.

The last three years, more than ever, have been an orchestra of the blues. Being diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis C – though no hep C now, thank you very much – and being dobbed into the dole for doing very little. Going through horrendous times. Mentally debilitating times, never mind physically, and I came out of them, which I always knew I would. ‘Standard Lamp’ is a reflection of that, the engine of it is that, the dramatic narrative is what would happen if you gave someone with principles enough money that they’d do anything. The character in that would. I wouldn’t. Also, I think the system is breaking down. It’s a metaphor for that. Lots of people now have to obey rather intense guidelines because we’ve become so right wing and, in a sense, they’re disobeying their own blues. They can’t sing their blues anymore. The Bourgeois Zeitgeist is killing everything.

This year you’ve returned to the stage for some intimate but rather grand gigs. One of the most recent was performing at Homotopia in Liverpool with Fenella Fielding, who read a selection of your poems. Quite a surreal concept to begin with. How was it for you?

How odd working with Fenella Fielding. For me it’s now distant but, at the time, because she’s so old I was worried that it might not happen in case she died, to be honest. She is 85. Then, when I met her, I discovered she’s an incredibly spritely 85-year old, so it was great. Suddenly it was like being transported to the 1950s and I’ve got a romantic notion of that time, so the idea I was with someone who was at the height of the West End in the 1950s was incredible. I would have gone out drinking with Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor and had it off with one of The Krays in a loo. More than happy to do that.

Working with Fenella though, that bit was delightful. Mireille Mathieu, Emma Peel, Elsie Tanner and Fennella Fielding were massive inspirations for Chloe so it was, in a bizarre and narcissistic way, like meeting a side of yourself. Profoundly surreal and still is. It feels like it was a dream and, in a sense, a dream come true. One of the most distinctive voices in theatre, radio, television and film has read my work and has recorded four poems – which will be available soon, on the web.

On Wednesday 26 November the book launch for The Chronicles of Folly Butler is being held at Central Library in Manchester. Let’s attempt to do one of those plugs for it.

It’s free entry. I’ll do about an hour and it’s being introduced by the lovely Jackie Hagan. It starts at 6pm.

Wonderful stuff.

Right, let’s have another cup of tea.

You can delve into Gerry Potter’s pot luck channel of love, comedy and despair at YouTube.

His new book The Chronicles of Folly Butler, along with the previous four, are published by Flapjack Press and are available through Amazon.

About Caleb Everett

Manchester-based writer / singer / performer. I welcome all comments and correspondence - even if it's just a death threat.