We arrived early in Chelsea for our close encounter with Tut’s bling giving us the chance to wander round my old manor where, back in the day, I was the money counter in Habitat. Come Saturday afternoons, I used to hang out at the Markham Arms with punters spilling out onto the pavement, trying to catch the eye of a likely lad who might. And many did. The King’s Road was where London swung in the sixties and, in the seventies, glam rockers minced and punks strutted. These days the unique boutiques and the avant garde have given way to chic shops for the filthy rich surrounded by some of the most expensive property on the planet. The Markham Arms is now a bank.
Another pub where my youth was gloriously misspent was the Queen’s Head in (wait for it) Tryon Street. The scene of my undoing was probably Britain’s oldest gay pub, with a pink lineage stretching back to the buttoned-up fifties. Last time I looked back in 2013, the pub had been saved from developers wanting to make a mint converting the handsome building into luxury flats. Alas, it was a pyrrhic victory as this image confirms.
Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on my trip down memory lane. Liam got to stand outside the former home of PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It made his day.
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.
One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.
Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.
And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.
There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.
Contrary to rumour, the age demographic around the pool of the gentlemen-only bungalow resort was more mixed than anticipated. Everything else, though, was as billed – comfortable abode with a few luxury touches, an obliging Portugeezer host, glorious weather and a warm and inviting salt-water pool (despite the black tiles giving the water the appearance of the Thames at London Bridge). The complimentary bottle of Cava went down a treat too.
Mostly we lazed, read and exchanged small talk with our fellow inmates, all looked over by a serene statue of the Buddha. What he made of the wibbly-wobbly willies slowly sizzling like bangers on a BBQ, God only knows. When I first holidayed to Gran Canaria back in the early eighties, nudity was strictly verboten. As the years rolled by and buttons loosened, full frontal was allowed but only after the cleaners had left for the day. Now, it’s okay to let it all hang down wherever and whenever you fancy, even while sipping a sex on the beach at the bar. Public licentiousness, though, was off the menu, particularly in the jacuzzi. It clogs up the filters, apparently.
We kept our family jewels firmly under wraps except in the privacy of our bung. Our eyes, though, were everywhere and especially drawn to a tattooed man from Doncaster with well-nibbled nipples and pendulous equipment. Well, it would’ve been rude not to look.
As we lolled around the pool, the travelling sun poked through under the parasol. Liam said…
I must put something on my face.
I suggested. How we laughed.
Being of a certain age and disposition, we only ventured out a few nights to the bars which are mostly located in a shopping centre which…
…is a naff treat for all the senses, a crumbling multi-layered open air shopping and sex emporium. It started to fall apart as soon as it was built. By day, it’s an over-sized pound shop patronised by ancient slow-lane Germans in busy shirts and socked sandals. But, at the stroke of midnight, the racks of tat are wheeled away, the garish bars throw open their doors and the entire place is transformed into a gaudy cacophonous neon-lit cess-pit of drunken debauchery.
The place hadn’t changed much except, perhaps, for the drag acts, which have raised their game since last we were there – a little more vaudeville and a little less Blackpool.
One steamy afternoon, we jumped in a cab to the lighthouse at Maspalomas for a light lunch and a few bevvies. First up was a low-brow diner with a slapped-up Gemma Collins lookalike sitting on the next table with her Essex companions. Next up was a gay oom-pah-pah bierkeller serving strong ale and bar snacks to the jolly leather-faced Germans. We were gutted to learn that ‘brot mit knoblauchsauce’ was German for garlic bread. Who knew? The afternoon ended at a posh café sinking a delicious bottle of Rioja while watching the sun go down.
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.
It was high time for a little naughty fun in the smoke – a chance to spend a boozy afternoon with the London landlady of our Turkey years and an old mucker of mine from way back when. First stop was the French House, an iconic Soho watering hole popular with arty types. It’s a…
…fabulous and entertaining spot to raise a glass in London, the French House truly deserves its reputation as the best known pub in the world’s naughtiest square mile. It’s no music, no machines, no television and no mobile phones rule makes it a haven for conversationalists and a firm favourite among some of the best known names in show business.
Even if they do say so themselves.
And converse we did through four bottles of their finest house plonk. Sadly, the clientele was a bit light on thespians and there was nobody famous to gawp at.
Next up was a Thai vegan restaurant. Imagine me doing vegan? Not when I’m sober. It was tasty enough but a bit of pricey for a plate of rice and veg sprinkled with a few cashew nuts and not at all fit for soaking up the Devil’s brew.
Finally, we fell into The Admiral Duncan, a gay bar made famous by a nail bomb which, in 1999, killed three and maimed many others. It was good to see the old place still thriving after all these years despite the advent of ‘dating’ apps which have killed off many a clip joint. It’s the Amazon effect. Why bother with the faff and expense of propping up the bar hoping for a chance liaison when you can order in with free delivery?
Our former landlady popped to the loo to spend a penny and got more than she bargained for. Liam asked if she was alright.
Not really, no. There’s a transsexual masturbating in the ladies.