For our fifteenth wedding anniversary we were itching for a big city scratch with a difference. Despite my heathen leanings, I do like an impressive church, and few are more impressive than London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s tour de force topped with its heavenly dome. The earlier Gothic pile was torched along with much of the old medieval city in the Great Fire of 1666. It’s reckoned the blaze started in a bakery in the appropriately named Pudding Lane, bringing a whole new meaning to the hallowed phrase ‘give us our daily bread’.
Meandering around the flashy Baroque splendour brought back happy memories of my first pilgrimage – back in my spotty teens when I accompanied my grandmother, who was over from Ireland.
According to the annals, there’s been a church on the same spot since 604 AD, and possibly as far back as the late Roman period, as suggested by a plaque listing the pre-Norman bishops with their glorious tongue-twister names.
In stark contrast to the lavish decor above, the crypt is simply appointed and stuffed with the tombs of kill and cure notables from days long past, from Florence Nightingale and Alexander Fleming – who discovered penicillin quite by chance – to the victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo, Nelson and Wellington. Napoleon must be spinning in his monumental Parisian grave. Wren is there too, of course.
After piety came avarice, with indulgent afternoon tea and bubbles in The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre followed by mother’s ruin at Halfway to Heaven, the homo watering hole near Nelson’s massive column, where Liam and I first met. They knew we were coming judging by the ultimate gay megamix playing on the jukebox – Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Marc Almond, The Communards, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dead or Alive, Gloria Gaynor and Hazel Dean – with Liza Minnelli’s ‘Love Pains’ bringing up the rear. Liam’s shoulders shimmied to the beat. Perfect.
When, in the late seventies, I took my first tentative steps onto London’s knock-and-enter gay scene, facial hair was all the rage. Walk into any smoky dive bar and you’d be confronted with an ocean of moustaches – the bigger, the bushier the better. It was like a Tom Selleck convention minus the Hawaiian shirts. We called ’em clones – the Frisco Crisco look. Even the limp-wristed tried to butch it up during the clone wars. The entire lookalikee-ness was gloriously sent up by the Village People in their camp 1978 disco classic ‘Macho Man’. I had the 12-inch.
And clones were only attracted to other clones – that was the Clone Law – dancing round each other in some strange narcissistic mating ritual. I couldn’t really grow convincing face furniture, and pretty boys like me didn’t get a look in. Still, it didn’t hold me back.
By the nineties, hirsute was out, supplanted by the clean-shaven and the fully-waxed. Roll on the noughties, and Desperate Dan* wannabees reclaimed the streets with overgrown hipster beards. But now the lumberjack look is old hat and tashes are back among the trendy young things. And so the world turns.
Being older and furrier, I saw this as my last chance to release my inner clone. For about a month, I nurtured my new whiskers with pride; a bit more salt than pepper perhaps, but full-bodied all the same.
But then a young chap accidentally brushed passed me in a crowded Norwich pub. “Really sorry, old man,” he said.
That was the end of my seventies pornstar tash.
*Desperate Dan was a big butch cartoon character from the Dandy comic with a beard so tough he shaved with a blowtorch.
We awoke this morning to the sad news that Paul O’Grady, AKA Lily Savage drag queen extraordinaire, has died. Even though I didn’t know Paul personally, somehow it still feels like a big loss. Lily Savage was such an important part of my formative years as a pretty young gay about town. Before Paul hit the big time on the telly box, firstly as his alter ego and then as himself, I misspent many a boozy night of slapstick and sequins watching Lily click her high heels on the velvet-draped stage of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, South London’s premier drag pub. Quick-witted, caustic, filthy and utterly original, Lily always brought the house down. I laughed so much it hurt. Nobody dared heckle Lily when Lily was on a roll. She was more than just drag. There have been countless drag queens down the ages, some great and some dire, but Lily stood wig and shoulders above them all. Lily was comedy royalty.
There are loads of videos of Paul and Lily on YouTube. I’ve picked one – outtakes from the Lily Savage TV Show back in the day on the Beeb. If you’re easily offended, best change channels now.
I reached the grand old age of sixty last year. This year was Liam’s turn and I’d planned a succession of treats – for me as well as for him – in old London Town. First up was a dinner date and gossipy catch up with an old pal in a fancy French restaurant in Chelsea, the trendy part of town where I gladly misspent much of my youth – ‘Days on the tills and nights on the tiles,’ I call it. The King’s Road is my memory lane and Liam joined me on my trip down it.
Next day I whisked Liam off to Covent Garden for a full English followed by a stroll. Once London’s main fruit and veg market with an opera house attached – think Audrey Hepburn as the cockney sparrow flower girl lip-syncing to ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’ in My Fair Lady – Covent Garden has long since evolved into a major magnet for tourists. And there were tourists aplenty, finally returning from home and abroad after lockdown.
Here’s the queue for Burberry. All that fuss just for a posh handbag.
We decided to take in some street opera and pavement art instead.
Our Covent Garden jolly continued with a ride around the London Transport Museum. In many ways, the story of London Transport is the story of London itself. The city couldn’t have spread like it has without the constant innovation needed to enable Londoners to go about their business. If trains, tubes, trams and trolley buses are your thing, it’s an Aladdin’s cave. We loved it.
After a brief power nap back at the hotel, we jumped on the Tube for a real indulgence – a performance of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The musical tells of the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the (to me) lesser known American ‘Founding Fathers’, delivered in song and rap. The deliberately delicious twist is that most of the cast – including Alexander himself – is black or mixed heritage. Adorned with every gong going, the show is slick, brilliantly staged and tuneful. The rap is used as dialogue and is lyrical and clever. It’s a masterpiece, a work of genius.
The evening concluded with more posh nosh and a final snifter in our favourite dive bar in busy, buzzy Soho. The long weekend was a whirlwind with the perfect ending. We finally got to meet Fred, our newest great-nephew.
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.