Hadley Stewart sits down for a chat with patrick cash; playwright, spoken-word poet and activist.
Playwright, spoken-word poet and activist, Patrick Cash’s creativity knows no bounds. Named as “one to watch” by The Independent, this queer creative has inspired and educated London’s LGBTQ+ scene about HIV and chemsex, founded his own theatre company, and is currently working on a script for BBC medical drama, Holby City. Our meeting in one of East London’s most iconic queer venues, Dalston Superstone, seems like an apt location to reflect on his writing career to date.
“I think there’s this myth of the Big Break,” Cash tells me. “That you’ll write something, enter it in a competition, and that wining the competition will make your career. It doesn’t really happen.” By his own admission, Cash initially lacked the maturity needed to be a writer, finding it after graduating from university. “It was definitely a part of maturity after university, where I could sit down and finish something. And also have a structure before I start, which is very helpful.” A graduate of Royal Holloway, University of London, where he read English and Classics, Cash went on to study a part-time Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University, whilst working in a Soho bar.
But it was a chance advert during his time working in Kubar that would plunge him into journalism. “I was flicking through QX Magazine and there was a message from the then Assistant Editor, Lee Dalloway, saying: do you want to get involved in the crazy world of journalism? So I thought, I might as well get some experience. I ended up working as Editorial Assistant there, whilst finishing my masters.” Having graduated from Oxford, Cash embarked on a period of traveling, before returning to London to take on the role of Assistant Editor at the very magazine where he had started his journalism career.
The road to writing, he is quick to remind me, is not paved with generous wages. “I think that the driving force has always been to write, and write creatively, but it’s extremely difficult in our society to make a viable career out of it.” A sentiment we both agree on. Despite the lack of financial incentives housed in the Creative Arts, Cash took a pragmatic approach to pursuing his passion. “I’ve always had that malleability of turning my hand to whatever it might be to support myself, whilst trying to make creative writing happen. I think at the moment it’s beginning to turn that way, but it’s been a long slog to get there.”
Given QX’s prominence on London’s gay scene, I wonder if this experience influenced his subsequent work. “Working at QX in the epicentre of the London gay scene, having access to all those different spaces and areas of research, and interviewing many, many different people, has definitely been very beneficial in forming my ideas of LGBTQ+ issues.” he says, having gone on to write the HIV Monologues and the Chemsex Monologues. These two plays provided audiences with the opportunity to explore the stories of people living with HIV and those who take part in chemsex, whilst turning their minds to issues around stigma, loneliness and mental health within the LGBTQ+ community.
The idea for exploring chemsex came to Cash during a night out in London. “I was in this one club in Vauxhall and I remember seeing a sea of half-naked people, and I thought: why is everyone here off their face on drugs?” recalls Cash, who routinely spent time in LGBTQ+ club as part of his role at QX. “That was definitely something that got my interest; then, I interviewed people about it. We saw people collapsing in the clubs and then others would step over them.” Cash realised chemsex merited greater discussion. “People were dying from it,” he adds with genuine concern. “It became obvious that it was a real issue in the community.”
As for his interests in HIV? “I’m not living with HIV myself, I do have friends that are living with HIV and I know lots of people who are working in the HIV sector. People like Matthew Hodson, the Executive Director of NAM, and others like Jonathan Blake, are very inspiring to me.” He also recognises the huge strides that have been made with treatment of HIV, against a backdrop of ongoing stigma towards those living with virus.
Perhaps most surprising was the fact that Cash himself has come on a journey, alongside his creative endeavours. “At twenty, even though I was leading this hedonistic lifestyle at university, I was probably self-destructing slightly with everything I was doing,” he confides. “Growing up in this society can affect you and have repercussions for the future. Even looking at things like internalised homophobia, and understanding how I had that myself and learning how to go forwards.”
These feelings have been infused into his work, “When I write about LGBT mental health or issues like chemsex, or stigma around HIV, it’s all kind of coming from my experience of growing up as a stigmatised member of a minority group. I find the scene very complex. I think there are a myriad of people, but particularly from my experiences in my twenties, the scene can be judgemental and can be a little bit nasty sometimes – I’ve always wondered where that came from.”
However, delving into such challenging issues would come at a cost for Cash. “I would use alcohol as a crutch in my early twenties,” says Cash, who was running an open mic session at the time, called Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs. “There was a lot of trauma shared over the mic, but it was also a celebration of community. After one event, I came round on Westminster Bridge. My last memory was being in Soho buying a pint, and when I came round I had no phone, no wallet, and a sore jaw. I had no memory of what happened.”
That incident resulted in Cash reflecting on his own alcohol consumption. “I need to completely cut this out,” he thought at the time, before spending a year free of alcohol. Diarising his experiences in an article in Attitude, the writer shared with readers his journey to better understanding his relationship with alcohol. “I’d done ‘Dry January’ beforehand,” he tells me, “but I needed to do some work on why I was getting to such a stage of drinking and working out how I could go forward.”
Today, Cash has re-introduced alcohol into his life. Some might argue that there is a pressure to drink when out on the LGBTQ+ scene, but he thinks the problem may be more deep-rooted. “I think it’s more about where the pressure comes from,” he reasons, pointing the finger at societal discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people and how this can influence people’s emotional wellbeing. “A lot of people internalise that without realising it. Then, when you feel bad, you get really low; then, if you turn to alcohol, that numbs the pain and makes you feel giddy. There’s a direct relationship between the negative feelings you experience when growing up and the use of drugs on the gay scene – all drugs, not just alcohol.”
As for his future projects, Cash is currently working on a script for the BBC medical drama, Holby City, having been chosen to be part of this year’s BBC Drama Room. He is unable to share any more details at this time, yet I am sure that those who have followed his career to date will be excited to see his name appear in the show’s credits. Moreover, Cash will once again be working with sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street, on another series of his successful online series, The Grass Is Always Grindr.
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Photo courtesy of Holly Revell