Artist David Hodge and his longterm drag persona The Very Miss Dusty O have a complex relationship, and that’s even after killing her off…twice. In his new memoir, The Boy Who Sat by the Window, Hodge takes us from his queer childhood in the 70s and 80s, through London’s vibrant Soho in the 90s and its decline in the 00s, taking in the demise of Dusty O and the rebirth of David Hodge as a visual artist, with some ferociously frank observations about celebrity, fame, and drag life along the way.
Starting off as a ginger kid from Walsall, already an outsider before the first twinkle of queerness rose in him, he was bullied, living with waring parents, and desperate for an escape. Hodge found inspiration in a teacher who encouraged him to be himself and soon his world transformed through the lens of 80s androgynous pop music and the power of Vivienne Westwood.
But before Dusty O would become the premiere drag personality of London’s clubland, David Hodge would live a very different life by day, working at London’s Lighthouse, a care facility for people living with HIV and AIDS). This duality, the line between David and Dusty, drives his life in fascinating directions.
Hodge is well aware that many readers will come to The Boy Who Sat By The Window for the gossip. The stories of brushing shoulders with Princess Diana, dining with Madonna, fighting with his friend Boy George, and partying with the likes of Robbie Williams, Pete Burns, Kylie Minogue, and Grace Jones. But if you’re looking for the acid-tongued wit that made Dusty O a legend, then you may be disappointed to find there is a tone of understanding and forgiveness in his voice. Hodge may serve the tea, but he’s added some soothing honey to counter the bitterness. After all, who is Dusty O to throw stones at the self-centred narcissists in this world, when he was one of them?
Dusty O’s world was old-school drag; boozy, fantastical, rough, and dangerous. And Hodge’s tales of London’s famed Pushca and Trannyshack make for a great companion read to Jeremy Atherton Lin’s excellent history of London’s gay scene, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. Hearing about the Showgirls-like inner-workings of the drag scene comes as something of a splash of cold reality compared to the sisterly love-fest of the recent RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 7.
There is a conversational, confessional tone to the book that makes for a very easy read. Hodge carefully navigates his own story with a weary resignation to his own faults, a calm eye over his misadventures. There is still an ego at play, and while Hodge offers some signs of humility it’s clear there’s still an edge of steel to him. What could easily have come off as a series of glib humble-brags or outright gloats, is tempered with wisdom.
It’s often the case that people who strive for what they think they need only discover its emptiness when they get it and it’s Hodge’s musings on the end of his drag career and his discovery of visual art that really inspires. You get the impression that leaving Dusty O behind was bumpier than he admits, and there is a real melancholy in his writing as he describes putting the persona down. Just because a relationship became toxic doesn’t mean there wasn’t love there.
Can you accuse David Hodge of faux-humility? Possibly. You can play a dangerous drinking game by noting the number of times the phrase “the Queen of Soho” comes up. Can you accuse him of ignorance? Sure. Taking gigs in homophobic countries for the pay cheque don’t show him in the best light. But The Boy Who Sat By The Window is as much a cautionary tale as it is a chronicle of a wondrous time in London’s gay nightlife. Mistakes were made and Hodge owns them, and that self-awareness makes for a great read.
By Chad Armstrong
The Boy Who Sat by the Window: The Story of the Queen of Soho by David Hodge is available from your local independent bookstore and the usual online giants from Thursday, September 8th 2022.