When a book opens with a naked dwarf tugging on someone’s quilt complaining they can’t get into the toilet because Snow White has passed out in a drunken stupor behind the door then you know there’s only one person this story belongs to. Still Standing : The Savage Years is the third in the autobiographical series from sometimes Drag Queen, sometimes chat show host, Paul O’Grady.
As it turned out it was Prince Charming passed out behind the bathroom door. This volume tracks the years when Paul finally became the legend that is Lily Savage. From the roughest pubs to the television studios, Paul tells a remarkable story. What strikes you with every one of these books is Paul’s honesty; from humble beginnings in Liverpool to touring Europe and the United Kingdom in the back of a clapped-out car, meeting a variety of bizarre and entertaining people along the way.
He hasn’t been round the block, he was the block. He discovers a world that changes his view of people and allows him to see that people are never what they seem and that you can find the nicest people in the most horrible of places. One tale tells of a stripper that worked rough pubs that Schwarzenneger would have been afraid to visit but did it to feed her children. As part of his baptism into the world of drag queens, Paul toured as part of a duo and a trio before circumstance brought about his solo debut as Lily Savage hosting a star’s night in a club for eight years. This is where he crafted Lily and created her history as Lilian Mae Veronica Savage whose mother gave birth on a street before having a stiff drink to recover. However, it descends into chaos when an over-excited transsexual decided to show the crowd the results of her recent gender reassignment operation.
What qualifies this as part of the nerd community is that Paul is a huge sci-fi fan and his tale of how proud he was at being able to buy his first video recorder so he could tape the entire Avengers series and his devastation that circumstance made him miss it one night is a revelation. He even had his room painted the same colour as Tara King’s room on the show. And his joy and delight at being invited to host an Avengers weekend and being flown in a helicopter with some of the Avengers girls is a memory that infects you with his excitement.
He’s also a huge Doctor Who fan and his biggest wish is to appear in the show and simply say ‘this way, Doctor.’ As a sidenote, he has appeared as himself in the Stolen Earth but I for me want him on the show. Imagine the Daleks facing Lily Savage – no contest.
But with all the laughs, there is a serious note to the book as well. Paul was there when AIDS broke out and gay people were labelled as bearers of the gay plague. His tales of friends dying and the fear they all lived in are heartbreaking, but you find yourself cheering when he tells of how he made Lily a spokeswoman to attack the establishment against the persecution they were experiencing at the time. As someone that remembers that time, even I was shocked as to the true extent of which they suffered. And the image of him walking the streets of Liverpool as it burned during the worst riots in history is akin to reading something from the Blitz. And yet you find yourself wanting to be at one of his riot parties with his mates.
This leads to a jump to the present as Paul visits a friend who is dying from cancer and the most poignant of encounters with a man on a bench who lays out Paul’s insecurities of being the last of his generation still standing while all the others have passed on.
But the most moving part for me was when Paul’s mother died. He had never told her about his drag queen work and his relationship with his mother forms the heart of this book. And even when he got his first acting role on telly in the Bill, her favourite show, he still couldn’t share it with her. You feel his loss as well and unable to bear losing the family home he took on the rent books until he faced reality and gave it up. Those passages where he is alone in an empty house stripped of all his family’s belongings as memories haunt him left me in tears. That image of him walking down the road alone will stay with me forever.
And yet there is still so much for him to tell. His years as Blankety Blank host, his own BBC show, the failed Coronation Street tour and his heart attacks as well as his beloved Buster and his encounters in showbiz as well as his reunion with his daughter. He worried when he initially set out to write his autobiography that there wouldn’t be enough to tell but yet here we are, three books later. What comes across is Paul’s honesty, his passion for people, causes and his beloved animals and his love of life.
His knowledge of Doctor Who rivals my own and to keep my crown, please write the rest of your story Paul.
If there’s only one autobiography you read this year make it this one. It will make you laugh then break your heart. Highly recommended.
4 out of 5 Nerds