This year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been in full swing with the usual eclectic mix of the traditional and the avant-garde in words, music, dance, acrobatics and eccentricity. And they don’t come more avant-garde or eccentric than Le Gateau Chocolat, a black, fat bearded drag queen from Nigeria with a rich baritone voice and a thoughtful line in diversity and exclusion. ‘Chocolate Cake’ delivered his jerky, quirky cabaret with pathos and panache, receiving an enthusiastic hand from a full house of well-oiled whiskery types.
Quite by chance, a foe from my pre-Liam Soho days parked his skinny arse in the row in front of us. It was a blast from the past that instantly chilled the air. Thankfully, the cabaret raised the temperature to heart-warming. By the encore, the old foe threw a tantrum (nothing to do with me) and sleeked off into the night with his entourage.
On the second day of our London jolly, we were planning to take in the view from the Shard, until we realised it was thirty quid a piece. So it was enough to see the tallest building in the European Union (not for much longer, of course) from the window of our hotel room. Instead we opted for a slow stroll through the City to the Museum of London. Well, it was free.
Along the way we crossed the Millennium Bridge, skirted around the magnificent St Paul’s, walked beneath Temple Bar and took a snap of Channel Four’s First Dates restaurant.
The Square Mile may be a throbbing epicentre of money and modernity, but the street plan is distinctly medieval and there was a surprise up every alley.
The Museum of London is one of my favourites – quirky, informative and well worth the free entrance!
After a couple of hours travelling from pre-history to the filthy lucre, the West End beckoned and we jumped on a bus to Soho, our spiritual home.
Late lunch was a bowl of Thai at the Tuk Tuk Noodle Bar on Old Compton Street – delicious and still ridiculously cheap – followed by a happy hour or two with the brethren outside the Duke of Wellington. As the warming sun began to set, we headed back to Bankside for an early evening cuddle.
And so ended a glorious few days in the big metropolis. As writer and clergyman Donald Lupton said of London in 1632,
‘…she swarms with all ages, natures, sexes, callings… she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.’
When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.
Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.
I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.
Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.
It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.
We took our seats at Cinema City for Nothing Like a Dame, a film that captures four great thespian dames – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins – in conversation. We had great expectations and we weren’t disappointed. All the director had to do was point the camera, say ‘action’, sit back and watch them rock. And rock they did with gossipy warmth, wit and insight, humour, naughtiness and modesty – without a hint of the pompous luvviness you might expect from these titans of the stage. It really hit me when I released that Joan Plowright, who could out-act anyone with just a look, is now blind. I had no idea. Despite this, the film was a voyeuristic joy, and it was a privilege to see it.
And so, in the best pansies tradition, here’s the trailer…
For the uninitiated, the Channel Islands are an archipelago in the English Channel, spitting distance from the French coast of Normandy. They include, among smaller fry, Jersey and Guernsey. Traditionally, the islands are thought of as the last vestiges of the Duchy of Normandy still in English hands – think William the Conqueror, 1066 and all that. These days, Jersey and Guernsey are wealthy tax havens taking full advantage of their legal status as Crown dependencies beyond the jurisdiction of the British tax authorities. It’s where the canny and the criminal stash their cash and where global companies avoid their dues.
Back in 1940, the economy was very different. Many islanders were dirt poor, scraping a meagre living from the land and the sea. When France fell to the Germans in June of that year, the fate of the islands was sealed. Geography made them indefensible and the Germans occupied them unopposed. The British Government evacuated who they could in a hurry and urged the rest to cooperate.
As was mostly the case throughout the occupied West, life under the Third Reich was not as deadly as in the occupied East – unless of course you happened to be Jewish/ gay/ socialist/ liberal/ Roma (delete according to badge), but it was still very harsh. And then there was the slave labour imported to construct the colossal fortifications built as part of the Atlantic Wall. Few of those poor souls survived. Conditions gradually worsened for everyone, ending in near starvation for both occupied and occupiers during the winter of 1944–45.
This is the backdrop to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a film based on a bestselling novel of the same name. I’m guessing the first half of the title refers to the German desire to maintain ordinary activities during extraordinary times and the second part is an ironic response to the subsistence rations suffered by the locals. The plot goes something like this…
Just after the war, an up-and-coming writer based in battle-torn London begins exchanging letters with members of the society. Feeling compelled to visit, she starts digging about for a story and a picture emerges of life during the occupation. She soon discovers that, while book reading was involved, the society was also a cunning ruse to avoid the night-time curfew and to consume illicit pork and home-brewed gin. Sounds like my kind of society. As she digs deeper, dark secrets begin to surface – needs must as they say – and there was a fine line between cooperation and collaboration. After all, not all Germans were Nazis.
The film also provides some love interest. Will the pretty young novelist shack up with her handsome Yank in his New York apartment with views across Central Park or get down and dirty with the hunky pig farmer with his rough hands, puppy-dog eyes and no electricity? I know who I’d choose.
The film won’t win any awards, but it’s a solid period piece with an interesting theme and not a bad way to spend a raining Sunday afternoon. And it won’t do Guernsey tourism any harm either, even though it was mostly shot in Cornwall and Devon.
Well not actually Barcelona – Sitges, a smart resort a few miles south which has been a magnet for the A-Gays for donkey’s years, even before that bastard Franco kicked the bucket. And to continue the fine tradition, an old friend and his partner have just exited Brexit and parachuted in. We might join them, who knows? Sitges is a coastal retreat untroubled by the political hurricane currently battering Catalonia. Like expat ghettos everywhere, it’s bubble-wrapped from the tedium of real life.
My flying visit was a business trip with added benefits. My old mucker is opening a gay ‘lifestyle’ store (no sniggering at the back) and I’ve been building his website. The shop should do well given the town’s perennial appeal to likely lads looking for supplies and fancy pants to drop. That was the business bit. Getting to spend time with one of my oldest friends was the benefits bit. Unfortunately, the weather was crap at both ends of the Bay of Biscay. I went from this:
As it was a pac-a-mac break, I didn’t get the chance to rub shoulder pads with surgically enhanced Eurotrash or old queens with painted faces and matching poodles. Still, the food was delicious, the booze free-flowing and the gossip salacious, so it was well worth coming in from the drizzle for. Naturally, the sun came out the day after I left. This is how Sitges normally looks:
March was Maker’s Month at the Forum where handy creatives from across the county showcased their passion for all things woven and sewn. Traditional skills have come back into fashion as a welcome antidote to our no-time-to-knit, wear-it-only-once society. I’m all for it. The revival is good for the mind as well as the pocket. Some of the exhibits, though, were plain scary.
Back in the day many working class mothers knitted, and my mother was no exception. I was raised to the clicking of knitting needles, and half-finished woollens could often be found stuffed down the side of the sofa. Mother knitted for all her sprogs – jumpers and cardigans mostly. Here’s one she made earlier for my first school photo.
It itched. That bit I remember.
She also made mittens and we had a balaclava each, which, on a frosty day, made us look like a gang of apprentice muggers.
One day, mother decided to raise her game and invested in a knitting machine on the ‘never, never’ as hire-purchase financing was called. Why ‘never, never’? Because the item was never, never yours until the final payment was made. And if you missed a payment, off it went back to the shop, no money back. I assume she forged my father’s signature as back then, housewives couldn’t get credit. Sadly, mother’s venture into mass production was short-lived; the machine was sent packing by my father when he got home from the barracks. Who knows? She could have been Britain’s answer to Benetton. Or perhaps not, judging by the scratchy cardigan. Nice buttons, though.