We’re on a roll with this year’s Summer Reads guest line-up. Last week’s post on Older Love by Catherine McNamara has been resonating loudly with readers for its rare affirmation of what later life can hold for women. Today I’m excited to welcome comedian and author Rosie Wilby to share her unique perspective on matters of the heart, as explored in her recent release The Breakup Monologues. My review follows Rosie’s romantic coming of age in nineties London:
As an isolated undergraduate at the University of York in 1992, I knew that I simply had to get to London. A series of painfully unrequited secret crushes on women had nudged me towards the realisation that I was gay. There barely seemed to be any gay people in the polite and twee surrounds of York. I was hardly likely to meet my soulmate at Betty’s Tea Room or wandering soulfully past the Minster. Gay people, as far as I could tell, all lived in London.
So when I moved into a tumbledown house share in Walthamstow in 1993 and started paying £30 a week in rent, I knew that my authentic life was just beginning. I immediately discovered a new sense of belonging. I started to meet friends at a relaxed LGBT café bar called First Out. Amy Lamé, now London’s Night Czar, worked there as a warmly welcoming waitress. Meanwhile, a community noticeboard connected people looking to join bands, source accommodation, meet a tennis partner or find a cat sitter.
I joined a Saturday morning women’s voice workshop run by jazz musician Laka Daisical at the Drill Hall and attended discussion groups at the London Women’s Centre in Holborn. Compared to York, London seemed bursting with endless networks of interesting women and possible love interests. My first girlfriend chatted me up at The Fallen Angel, one of London’s many now defunct queer spaces. I was handing out flyers for a music gig I was performing at, the creative energy of Laka’s voice workshop having inspired me to hone my songwriting skills.
‘Aren’t you Rosie Wilby?’ she enquired. I thought I must have already become famous. People were recognising me! Yet it turned out that she was a fellow York graduate, who had similarly escaped to the queerness of the big city. We moved in together, staggering to indie concerts and the annual Fleadh festival around the corner from us in Finsbury Park. I started writing reviews for the local newspapers, the Ham & High and Highbury & Islington Express, in order to get free tickets and some beer money. Soon afterwards, I landed a freelance role in the music section at Time Out.
Yet as London entered a new millennium, my girlfriend and I were forced to grow up quickly. My mum lost her battle with cancer. Then, shortly afterwards, we lost all of our possessions in a house fire, my guitars melted and mangled into new shapes entirely. As we camped out on a friend’s floor wearing borrowed clothes, we calmly agreed to separate. Like all good lesbians, however, we remained friends. So when she moved to East Dulwich, I followed. I rented a tiny one-bedroom flat around the corner from her, switched from music to comedy and began my love affair with South London…
The Ship of Fools, held in a tiny room above the Ship pub on Borough Road, was one of the weirder London comedy nights, often populated by more performers than genuine punters. Two women sat at the front, one of them amiably heckling.
In the interval, the heckler rushed up to me excitedly and slurred, ‘You were brilliant!’
I hadn’t even been onstage yet.
There was something about the heckler’s dark-haired friend, however, that intrigued me. She shot me a smile that seemed to say, ‘Sorry about my mate. We are just a wee bit tipsy.’ After an interminably long list of performers had all stumbled through their sets, the dark-haired friend and I got chatting. She was a musician. So I invited her to my gig the following week, a rare one where I’d be mixing up the music and comedy, at Moonbow Jakes in Brockley.
As I walked across the railway bridge that ran high above the line out to the suburbs, the metal tracks shimmering in the summer heat, I made a promise to myself. If the dark-haired woman turned up, I was going to kiss her. I was pretty confident that she would show even though we had steered around any sense of the invitation being an official ‘date’. The venue had a sweet fairy-lit backyard, which would be empty for last orders. That would be my opportunity. I had a plan.
After my show, I lead her out to the garden and we leaned up against the fence in a wild embrace. We must have been there for a while but it seemed like no time had passed at all when we were interrupted by a brusque matronly waitress leaning out of the window and banging a saucepan, shouting, ‘closing in five minutes, girls!’
It felt like a new chapter in my life was beginning.
Reader, it didn’t work out.
Thanks to Rosie for this wonderful rites of passage story, full of London atmosphere and nostalgia for places that have disappeared (thank goodness for Meetup).
IN BRIEF: My View of The Breakup Monologues
Rosie Wilby’s self-styled handle ‘the lesbian Louis Theroux’ is an apt one, as they both have a genuine interest in other people and a desire to understand their lives which doesn’t involve judgement. I read a lot of non-fiction about sexuality and relationships and as Rosie mentions in her first (also excellent) book Is Monogamy Dead? the acknowledged scope of most doesn’t extend beyond heterosexual relationships. For me it’s a real strength of her work that it includes other sexual orientations and I imagine that makes it more interesting for any reader – it’s certainly an invitation to question longstanding social ‘norms’ and conventions and consider the alternatives.
When The Breakup Monologues first crossed my radar, it sounded just my kind of book but not at all one I thought would end up on my Summer Reads selection. How wrong can you be? (Very, and often.) Drawing on her own and many friends’ and acquaintances’ sexual and romantic experiences, it isn’t just fascinating, insightful and empathetic – it tells a better story than many novels and is considerably funnier.
Early next week I will be releasing my Summer Reads Extras 2021 – a follow-up selection of five novels just as impressive as the original dozen. And on 21 July the guest season wraps up with a visit from Anne Goodwin on Setting her novel in a psychiatric hospital.