Who knows what life will be like once we’re released from house arrest? What will the so-called new normal look like? What’s certain is we’re all Zooming, streaming and buying online like never before. This was already the direction of travel and it just got turbo-charged. How many bricks and mortar businesses will survive is anyone’s guess.
And then there are the most ancient of games – cruising, coupling and canoodling – and the arenas where these rituals are played out. From an LGBT perspective, swiping right had already forced many a gay boozer to call time for good. Why bother with the faff and expense of propping up a bar hoping for a chance liaison when you can order in with free delivery? But these places aren’t just about a Saturday night takeaway, they also provide a community hub and a safe haven from a sometimes hostile world.
An old friend sent me – via WhatsApp, ironically – these amazing images of some of London’s most iconic gay pubs, venues with long and infamous pedigrees. I don’t know who took the pictures so they can’t be credited but they brought back a flood of memories of my gloriously misspent past.
Ladies and gents and all those in between, I give you the seven sisters. As the old saying goes, use them or lose them.
This year, Liam and I jollied in London for our birthdays. A state of the art, hi-tech micro-room in St James’ was the perfect base for our foraging. We arrived on Remembrance Sunday and the centre of town was buzzing with blazers, badges and bling under a canopy of Christmas lights. It was fun being tourists with time on our hands to roam and drink it all in, something we rarely did when we were worker bees on the treadmill.
Talking of drinking it all in, no trip to the West End is quite the same without a jar or two in a local hostelry. As seems to be our habit these days, we ended up at Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square and the splendid den of iniquity where Liam first caught my roving eye 13 years ago. Quite by chance, we arrived just in time to catch their annual Remembrance Day show.
The pub was rammed with military veterans – men and women, young and old, straight, gay and everything in between, all in their Sunday best – enjoying a convivial mingle with the regulars.
Halfway to Heaven has become something of a safe and welcoming place for ex-military LGBT people. Who knew? But it was a wonder to behold. When we were at the bar ordering drinks, a middle-aged woman was chatting to the manager.
“Thank you for being so nice to my dad and his husband,”
she said, pointing at two old soldiers in the corner.
Following our friendly skirmish with modern Norsemen, we decided to give the Viking Exhibition at Norwich Castle a whirl and find out a little bit more about their hell-raising forebears. I’ve no clue what kind of history kids get taught these days but when I recently asked a history student what happened in 1066, he didn’t know. Now, I’m not one who thinks it should all be about dynasties and dates, but 1066? Really? In my day, the ‘Dark Ages’ (as they used to be called) were very much part of the curriculum and the Viking era was all about rape, pillage and good King Alfred burning his cakes. The aim of the exhibition – Viking, Rediscover the Legend – is to deconstruct the blood and guts myth and tell the more complex story of raid, migration and integration.
Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the show – a bit sparse, exhibit-wise. But it was a welcome distraction on a very hot and sweaty afternoon. And I loved the exquisite York Helmet, the best surviving example of its type in Europe. It’s quite small. I imagine the owner, Oshere, was a bit on the short side. This may explain all that Viking aggro – small man syndrome! I know all about that. I was also struck by the size of the coinage – no bigger than modern-day pennies and easily lost down the side of a sofa. But then they didn’t have IKEA back in the dark days of the Dark Ages.
British weather is notoriously changeable – from drab to sparkling, drenched to parched, cold to clammy – sometimes all in the space of a few days. Perhaps that’s why it’s a bit of a national obsession and the staple of many an awkward conversation in a lift. It pays to take full advantage when a fine weather front rolls in. And take advantage we did when balmy air blew up from the Continent to bestow a mini heatwave for Easter. We jumped on a bus and headed for a riverside pub in Thorpe St Andrew, a pretty hamlet on the outskirts of Norwich. Liam wanted ducks, I wanted wine. The wine won. The only duck we saw was on a road sign.
On one of our rare visits to the home counties, my sister-in-law fished out an ancient, long-forgotten photo of me from a biscuit tin she keeps under the stairs. I’m guessing I was about 14. I look older, I think. I matured young – so young, in fact, that at the tender age of 12 I used my Dad’s razor to shave my legs in the bath. No, not because I fancied slipping on my sister’s tights (just in case you were wondering) but because I was embarrassed. Most of my contemporaries at school hardly had a short and curly between them.
The backdrop to the image is a perfect picture of naff seventies-chic. Our south London parlour was a riot of clashing colours and patterns – orange floral flock wallpaper, red faux-velvet curtains, an orange and brown three piece suite in synthetic wool and a swirly carpet in reds, blues and greens. It made my old girl proud. Nowadays, it would make everyone else feel nauseous.
As for me, what are those goggles about? And the shocking locks? They had a will all of their own until tamed by creeping male pattern baldness. Still, I was cute – even if I do say so myself – with raging hormones, a 26-inch waist and cheekbones that could slice cheese. Happy days. The grim, buttoned-up decade never held me back. And what was my chopper doing behind that sofa? Now that would be telling.