The tail end of August saw us in old London Town to commemorate what would have been the 59th birthday of an old friend who died unexpectedly in January this year. It was our first trip to the Smoke since lockdown and we were understandably anxious. It’s only about 100 miles from here to there but it might as well be another country.
The shiny new train wasn’t busy. We almost had the carriage to ourselves and most passengers complied with the ‘new normal’ – face mask-wise. Booking into a hotel for a couple of nights gave us the chance to test the waters. We rode the Tube and drank in familiar Soho haunts. It was fine.
The early August heatwave gave us hope that we might have a picnic in St James’s Park – a fun and fabulous tradition developed over many years – but, alas, the weather turned blustery so we made do with a restaurant as ‘Storm Clive’ passed overhead. We came together under the shadow of Eros on Piccadilly Circus – except of course, it’s actually a statue of Eros’ less well-known sibling, Anteros, but everyone calls it Eros anyway.
I can’t share any images of the actual birthday bash. Some of the assembled are social media shy and don’t want their images online. And who can blame them? Suffice it to say it was a joyous occasion – old friends talking old times through a jolly, drunken haze. And Clive was there in spirit.
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.
It was the calm before the storm. We flew out just before Storm Ciara barrelled across the flatlands on the Jet2 poofs and pensioners express to Gran Canaria with an all-male crew who minced up and down the aisles dishing up relentless jollity with the booze. We fitted right in and celebrated with fizz.
For our fix of winter sun this year we’d gone a bit more upmarket, staying at the Canary Garden Club, a well-appointed collection of whitewashed bungalows set in lush, beautifully-tended gardens. The sparkling pool was gorgeous though somewhat marred by the assortment of old fossils drying out in the sun. Still, it made us feel young again.
This was intended to be R&R gig and so we only ventured out once to the Yumbo Center – the epicentre of gay nightlife in Playa Del Inglés – with its trashy bars with their trashy boys flaunting their trashy bits. A likely lad emerged from the shadows and offered us Charlie, and I don’t mean my mother’s favourite fragrance from the seventies.
The gay scene has evolved down the years from the small intimate bars of my youth, partially hidden from view so as not to offend the easily offended, to cocktail cafés spilling out everywhere, in-yer-face drag shows banging out the show tunes and brash cruising establishments that do exactly what they say on the signs, and more – Sodom and Gomorrah in sequins and leather. We left it to the wide-eyed and lustful, and were in bed by midnight.
Most days we dined early and watched the sun go down over the Atlantic – just what the doctored ordered after an over-eventful year.
We arrived back at Stansted late – too late to travel back all the way to the middle of nowhere – so we’d pre-booked a budget hotel, or so I’d thought. To my surprise and total delight, Liam had upgraded us for Valentine’s. And on the train back to Norwich the next day, the guard hole-punched our tickets with a heart. Who said romance is dead?
Since we became village people, hardly a day has passed when it hasn’t rained – drizzle one day, deluge the next and endless dreary skies. Even the ducks have had enough. So at this time of year a young (and not so young) man’s fancy turns to a bit of cheap fun in the sun. Unlike the ducks, we’re flying south to Gran Canaria.
Whereas in 2019 we lodged in a bijou men-only bungalow complex for wrinkly friends of Dorothy, this time we’ve going large and going upmarket. While it would be rude not to venture to the bars at least once for our annual no nonsense in-yer-face, up-for-anything fix, I suspect the main event will be chick-lit under a parasol by day and cocoa laced with a medicinal nightcap by bedtime.
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.