The first time I saw Clayton Littlewood was at a reading from his book, Dirty White Boy, in December 2008. He was preceded by pint-sized singer Celine, who thundered out an a cappella version of ‘The Lady of Soho’, and joined by infamous Sohoite Sebastian Horsely, who mounted the stage and turned to the audience to declare, ‘I know you all want to fuck me but you’ll just have to wait until after the show.’ It was an anarchic, stentorian, and hyperactive introduction to a writer whose subject is just that.
The book Dirty White Boy began as a MySpace blog when Clayton and his partner Jorge were running a shop of the same name. Its subject is London’s Soho, in which the shop was situated, under a brothel no less and on the corner of the gay mecca Old Compton Street. Clayton would sit and watch the chaotic world of Soho go by, take notes in a little black book, and then write his blog.
“If anyone’s in the book it’s an homage to that person, to someone who has interested me,” he said when I asked him about whom he chose to write about. “We had the Groucho Club opposite, with Lily Allen and Peaches Geldolf falling out of there every night, but I wasn’t really interested in those type of people, because you can pick up Heat magazine for that. I was interested in the characters, the local Soho-ites. I followed their lives. They would come into the shop, and into the blog, then make another appearance, and so accidentally they became characters just because I was interested in them.”
It is because of Clayton’s genuine interest in the people he writes about that Dirty White Boy is such an engaging read. It pulls you in, wraps you up in its world, and as a result you become invested in it. He refers to his subjects as characters throughout our conversation, and in a way they have become so as part of this alchemical process through cyberspace to the printed word. His subject is not himself, not the performers who frequent the Soho bars and clubs, but the “people for whom Soho is their home.” It is no surprise that he has been called “the queer descendant of Samuel Pepys”.
I met Clayton in a cafe on Old Compton Street, a block away from where Dirty White Boy stood before it was claimed by the credit crunch in July. Clayton orders the coffee, already host to the Soho of which he writes, and as we sit down one of the characters, Pam the Fag Lady, shuffles up to him.
Pam the Fag Lady is one of the regulars in Dirty White Boy. In one chapter she makes her definitive appearance, “a squashed-up gargoyle face pressed against the glass, inches from my face, the big oval glasses magnifying the eyes.”
I smile back and, as if that is her cue, she stops blinking, pulls back, and holds up one finger, mouthing the word “money”. As we’ve only just opened, I give her a shrug and her face drops, briefly – then lights up again as she stretches out her arms and mouths the word “cuddles”.
The café scene is a 3-D surround-sound reading of the book as Clayton hands over some coins to Pam and kisses her on the cheek. She then turns to me and smiles. For a second I felt like I was meeting a celebrity. I hand over a pound coin and, flustered, lean in to kiss her too. I miss the cheek and the kiss lands square on the lips. Pam flutters and turns to Clayton. “Ooh, this one kissed me on the lips!” And then she is gone. It is the perfect way to start the interview.
“People think oh, these people can’t really exist,” Clayton observes as we talk about the dramatis personae of Dirty White Boy and a world he describes as a “strange if not stranger version of fiction. But if you sit on this street for any length of time they’ll eventually walk past. When anyone’s met Pam they’ve instant recognized her from the blog. If you’re on this street you see such mad characters. We had a brothel above us, celebrities coming in the shop now and again, transsexuals showing you their surgery one minute, and old queens talking away the next.”
There is a vibrancy to Soho, and the reason that Clayton communicates it so effectively throughout Dirty White Boy is because he adopts the role of the observer. He writes a diary not about himself but what he is witness to. This makes his work stand out in the age of Web 2.0, which is more often than not about the celebration of the self. I asked Clayton how deliberate this was.
“I didn’t think that I was a particularly interesting character to write about, and I felt more comfortable looking at all this madness out of the window. But I think that when you’re writing about other people, even the act of doing it, is probably revealing a lot about yourself, just in who you choose to focus on. I chose to focus on a post-op transsexual and that’s probably because of the person I am.”
Angie is one of the most glorious characters in the book. In one chapter she sashays into the shop, strides up the counter, “a beautiful face and a pair of big creamy white breasts that look like they’re about to wrap themselves about my neck.” Clayton is soon privy to the work of the plastic surgeon. “‘I love my new fanny,’ Angela coos, as if it’s a newborn baby, which I suppose in a way it is.” Angie, Clayton told me, “has been going around telling people, ‘Clayton has just written my biography’. Of course I hadn’t, she’s just in there for a couple of chapters.”
“But what memorable appearances they are,” I note, to which he nods and adds, “Well, yes.”
Perhaps the most impactive character throughout is the madam of the brothel situated above the shop, Sue. She is a force of nature, and as a result Clayton slips unavoidably into simile overdrive when writing about her.
A big lady, she now sways while she stomps, like the Titanic on its maiden voyage, majestic but menacing, sailing down the street, her bottle-blond mane swishing from side to side, her face set into a hard grimace.
Such evocative descriptions buoy her many appearances throughout. In the chapter where Sue and her coeval Maggie confront Clayton about their appearance in his MySpace blog it is hard not to feel ever-so-slightly scared on Clayton’s behalf. “‘Come ‘ere,’ Sue mouths seductively, with all the allure of Hannibal Lecter on a dinner date … I close my eyes. Wondering how I am going to break it to Jorge that I’m now a eunuch.”
I told Clay that at this point I was terrified at what was to follow. “ Oh my god, yeah,” he laughs. “She was frightening! But then she said, oh, it’s ok, we’re on punternet.com.”
From Cyberspace through to Print
The story of how the book Dirty White Boy came about, its progress from blog to book, is an interesting one for both reader and writer. It is also a culturally illustrative lesson in the days of user-generated content. The process of selection that goes into making a book separates it from the transitory world of the blog. It is not necessarily that it becomes part of a canon but more that it becomes part of a continuum, that it is traceable, that it has been raised up from the chaotic arena of the blog in which the here-and-now is all there is.
Clayton is characteristically modest about this journey. “Writing it as a blog was really good for me,” he said. “You get instant feedback when you blog. People are telling you whether it’s either a load of shit or good. It was a real encouragement to keep writing. When you have a book out you go through a year before it’s actually on the shelves, but you don’t really know whether it’s good or bad until the reviews come out. For a first time author like myself blogging meant that I was getting all these comments and that was encouraging.”
Clayton describes the process that led from blog to book as almost an accident. “I had always written diaries. Normally people keep a diary when something big happens in their lives, or they start a new job, a new relationship, or end a relationship. I’ve kept them for years, but just sporadically, during important moments. So when we had the shop I thought, ‘this is going to be an important moment’. I had a feeling we weren’t going to be there very long, so I wanted to document the period. We were getting all these crazy people coming into the shop, all these mad characters, but I thought rather then just write it as a diary I thought I would post it on MySpace. I have always written, but it was the first time that I had shown anybody what I had written. It just coincided with having the shop, joining MySpace, and posting my little diary excerpts.”
Talking to Clayton, I wonder if he realises just how good his work is, and how engaging a writer he is. Perhaps this is the reason why his writing is so fresh and so interesting.
I nevertheless asked him if he had trouble from bitchy queens when writing the blog. “I was writing a column for the London Paper for a while called Soho Stories,” he told me, “and there were a few nasty emails sent in. A couple of people put horrible things on websites, which kind of shocked me because I don’t think I’ve ever written anything nasty. I always think that I am observing life on the street, and people who came into the shop, but I don’t think I was ripping anyone to shreds. If I had been an antagonistic writer I would have expected that but I wasn’t at all.” He pauses to shrug. “I suppose as soon as you put yourself out there you have to expect the odd crazy, personal queen to be a bit nasty.”
With an engaging smile he immediately turns back to the more upbeat side of this. “There was a lot of good press as a result of the London Paper, a lot of people would come into the shop and say they liked it, so that was encouraging.” He adds, “One homeless guy came in and said, ‘I slept on you last night’.”
The publication of the book Dirty White Boy was guided by the writer Rupert Smith. “I had this blog, not really thinking anyone was reading it,” Clayton explained, “but then people started leaving comments. Gradually the readers built up and one of them was Rupert Smith, who runs the House of Homosexual Culture. He put me in touch with his publishers, Cleis Press, who are based in San Fransisco. And they liked the blog, it reminded them of Tales of the City, with a gay man writing about an area and local characters, so they offered me a deal. So it was an accident really. Already most of the book was finished before I was offered a deal.”
Words and the Play
At the back of Dirty White Boy is a short glossary which explains terms and phrases that are specifically English. For example: “Queue is a line of waiting people or vehicles. The British stand in queues (and have been since at least 1837 when this term was first recorded in English.)” The reason for the glossary is that many of the early readers of the blog were American, “and so some of the language I was coming out with, they didn’t really know what it was.” With characteristically English irreverence, Clayton added, “then I thought, sod it, I am not going to change the whole book just to relate it to an American audience. If they want to find out what a word is I’m going to put a glossary at the back. I’m not going to start altering things.”
Following this is a short glossary of words in Polari, which relate to one of the book’s primary characters, Leslie, who talks of lallies, omis, riah and trade. “I met Leslie in July of 2007, and I noticed he was using Polari,” Clayton said, “and I didn’t know all the words. I’d heard a couple older friends of mine use it years ago, but was the first time I had heard anyone use it since then.”
Leslie enters the book fairly late, yet as soon as he does his mannerisms and his story dominate the narrative and lead it toward its moving conclusion. Leslie was featured in the reading I saw Clayton give at Freedom and played by an actor friend of Clayton’s, Roger Lloyd Thompson. Clayton hovered in the background, much like he does in the book, and handed the floor over for a whirlwind comedic performance.
I asked Clayton what led him to stage such idiosyncratic readings. “I’d been to quite a few readings in my life and always found them a bit boring because the writer is staring down at the page and the audience aren’t really connecting. So I wanted to do something that would make more of an impression than that. In February I was asked to do a reading and I thought I would pick some scenes from the book, join a couple together, and get a friend of mine, David Benson, to do the acting. It makes a performance so much more interesting. The reception was so good I thought that I could turn it into a play.”
And turning Dirty White Boy into a play, as well as working on a sequel, is now in the works. “I would like to take it to Soho Theatre as it seems like a logical step,” Clayton explained, and added with characteristic modesty, “I’ve submitted it to them. I’m hoping they’ll take the offer up.”
At the end of his blog about the December reading, Clayton wrote, “The reading’s over, the crowd applaud, I contemplate a curtsey, and, just for a few seconds, I feel like a star.” Clayton may cede the stage to the characters, but it is his observation, his uncanny ability to distill and recreate their everyday performances, that gathers it all into a cohesive whole. He may be the straight act in so many comedy duos, but he is definitely the real star of the show.