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Gay Times January 13 - Issue 414

Paul O'Grady

“I’ve got women dropping here with malaria – we need food parcels!”

Don’t worry – nation’s sweetheart Paul O’Grady hasn’t become a nurse in foreign climates, or to misplaced pop stars. We’re sat in a posh London hotel talking about Tenko. Of course we are. His favourite character was Stephanie Cole’s Dr Mason, if you’re interested, hence the quote.
“We used to play it!” Paul enthuses, talking about his beloved dog. “When we had the chicken coop built, Buster used to stand outside parading, we used to say ‘chicken bow or be punished!’”
I love Paul O’Grady. From way back working the London gay scene as a pre-black-rooted Lily Savage, to appearing on The Big Breakfast, Blankety Blank, his own chat shows and programmes aplenty (via a musical version of Prisoner: Cell Block H and an unsuccessful stab at a pop career) he’s always been upfront, honest and hilariously mischievous. You can see the glint in his eye. But more than that, he’s a passionate man. He cares. The things he talks about with love, as I discover, can make you ache laughing one minute then make your bottom lip wobble the next.
Not that he’s one for ‘whinging’, as he puts it.
But with the life he’s led, the 57-year-old Scouser’s always got a tale to tell – thank god, as that’s primarily why we’re here today, to talk about his new book Still Standing: The Savage Years. Not that we really stay on topic. Although I do manage to glean that though this was supposed to be the third and final instalment of his memoirs, we’re thankfully a long way from the end yet.
“Doesn’t look like it, does it,” he laughs. “I get carried away when I write because I’m a stickler for detail, I don’t like ‘and then I did this and then I did that’ because I’ve read so many of ‘then I did this and then I did that’. I want to know in detail what it’s like, how you felt at the time and what the place was like and what the result was. And it must have a beginning and a middle and an end and all that takes time. Also, to do justice to people, especially writing about all the friends who died, you can’t just skim over them, you’ve got to let people know what they were like as people, as characters. And they were and it was odd writing about them because I suddenly realised how much I missed them all and how many of them had gone. All good friends, you know, I thought ‘well this is rotten, this is’.
“I’m the type now – somebody said to me ‘oh there’s a wonderful documentary on about AIDS’ and I don’t want to know thanks. I was there, I don’t want to know. I won’t go and see films about it or anything because often they’re glamorised or they’re portrayed in a way which it wasn’t like that for me, it was terrible, they were mean times. There was nothing glamorous about them and the only thing I sort of remember is everyone’s bravery – no one moaned, nobody said ‘why me?’ They got on with it, they were so bloody brave. They really were.
“It’s horrific. I mean, friends were dropping like flies and you’d go ‘not another one’. I’d go and visit a friend in the morning, go to a funeral of another person, go home and press my answer phone and the person I’d seen that morning had died. But you know, you couldn’t go under. You had to be there, you had to be supportive; you have to be the strong one. It was only afterwards it really hit me. It was the aftermath, the fallout came years later. I can’t watch stuff like that because it opens up old graves and brings back old memories so for me to write about them all again was pretty tough, I’ll be honest with you.
“I’ve still got on my mobile all my friends who’ve died. Can’t bring myself to erase them. Same with my books and all my diaries they’re still all there, all the phone numbers. So if you went through my phone half of them are stiffs!” he laughs. “But I cannot bring myself... I just can’t. So they’re always there with me. They were such good mates and we went through such good times together. Especially Murphy [Brendan, his long-term partner], god I was with Murphy for over 20 years and then he got that bloody tumour and I thought ‘I can’t believe they’ve taken him from me as well’. I was forever going out, arguing with the elements – whoever this god is – saying ‘take me instead, give him a chance, he wants to stay here, I don’t’. It was just dreadful. I hate the attitude that it’s an old queen’s disease – it’s not! It’s not a question of being promiscuous; you can go with one person in your life and get the virus. Please wear a rubber, it’s as simple as that.”

To read the full article, pick up the latest copy of GT out in all good retailers, online and downloadable on your iPhone or iPad.

Words: Darren Scott

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