In Istanbul, tear gas and rubber bullets broke up small groups of brave souls attempting to defy the ban of this year’s pride march. In London, the rainbow flag flies proudly over Tower Bridge, one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Just sayin’.
Happy London Pride today. For those, like us, who won’t be parading down Whitehall, what better way to mark the event than to watch the cast of the Lion King featuring the London Gay Men’s Chorus singing the Circle of Life composed by England’s second biggest queen?
Recently, the wonderful Stephen Fry presented an equally wonderful programme on Channel Four celebrating five iconic buildings inextricably linked with the pink community and the struggle for LGBT rights. As a London boy with my London ways, two of the building resonated with me in particular. The first was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, the scene of many a young man’s undoing – mine included, I’m pleased to say. In 2015, the venue received listed (i.e. protected) status by Historic England because…
…the building has historic and cultural significance as one of the best known and longstanding LGB&T venues…
It’s the only building to be listed on this basis.
The second venue on the list was Heaven. Not the fairy tale beyond the Pearly Gates, no, the paradise on Earth that is the nightclub in the arches under Charing Cross Station in what used to be the wine cellar for the station’s grand hotel. The club opened in 1979 and is still throbbing to the beat today.
I stepped through the now famous doors soon after it opened and the stage was set for my regular Saturday night Bacchanalia. One fateful evening in 1982, someone with arctic-blue eyes and Tom Sellick tash emerged from the mob of vests and chests. I stalked him for what seemed like hours. Little good it did me. I didn’t get so much as a side glance for my trouble. Clearly, my magic wand had run out of juice that night. In the end I thought ‘sod you’, cut my losses and headed for the exit.
As I retrieved my jacket from the coat check, there was a tap on my shoulder.
You owe me a cigarette.
I gave the man with the arctic-blue eyes and Tom Selleck tash my last fag and he smoked it. We were together for 11 years. Funny thing was, he wasn’t a smoker.
Of late, boozy gigs with ancient comrades from old London Town have been as rare as ginger imams. Somehow life just gets in the way. So, one evening I fired off a text.
“Boys. It’s high time we had a coven.”
After a flurry of replies, it was game on.
I always get down to the big city a tad early – to imbibe the vibe and cast my spell over the Soho boys. I know, hopelessly deluded. Gay scene wise, Soho isn’t quite what it was. Online ‘dating’ has seen to that. Nevertheless, a few old haunts stumble on, attracting the after-school crowd. I wandered into the Duke of Wellington (or the Welly as it’s affectionately known, my spiritual home back in the day). As I headed for the bar, I spied a former squeeze in the corner of my eye. By the time I’d been served, the hairy old crow had taken flight, leaving half his pint behind. Clearly, my magic wand has lost its vigour. I wouldn’t mind but it’s over twenty years since we stepped out.
After a sherry or two with my London witches, we pitched up at a local brasserie for a bite and a long natter. We wittered on for hours about everything and nothing and by the time we were hoarse, the staff were sweeping up and stacking chairs around us. It was time to mount our broomsticks, and as befits three old sorcerers whose powers to bewitch have all but withered, we were tucked up in our beds by the stroke of midnight.
This is what we looked like twenty years ago before our allure had faded. Obviously, that’s not yer actual Taj Mahal. We were in Blackpool for a dirty weekend. And where better?
And this is what we look like now. No wonder our wands have dropped off.
All men convicted of homosexual offences no longer illegal have now received a royal pardon. The general pardon (so-called Turing’s Law) is modelled on the 2013 pardon granted to Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who broke the German Enigma codes during World War Two and shortened the war, saving thousands. In return, he was convicted by an ungrateful nation of gross indecency, chose chemical castration over incarceration and killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41. It’s a story full of shame, none of which was his. For the dead, the pardon is posthumous. Those still alive and mincing (reckoned to be around 15,000) can apply to have their convictions expunged from the record. I could have been one of them. I just didn’t get caught.
John Hurt, the first Chancellor of the Norwich University of the Arts, was a talented, versatile and prolific character actor. His superb portrayals of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, Max in Midnight Express and Caligula in the BBC’s I, Claudius immediately spring to mind. There are many, many others in a career spanning six decades. But for me, it was his role as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant which resonated the most. It was 1975 and I was 15 and fretful. The film was a revelation. Not because I wanted to do a Crisp by slapping on, dragging up and renting myself out for a few shillings. No, because I suddenly realised that if Quentin could live an unabashed life during the most hostile of times, then my own coming out might not be so traumatic. Apparently, John Hurt was strongly advised against taking the part. It would be career suicide, he was told. Hurt ignored the doomsayers and I’m so glad he did. And despite a few initial wobbles, my step from the closet turned out just fine.
Recently, apprentice clerics at an Anglican theological college in Cambridge were given permission to hold a service to commemorate LGBT history month. The Church of England still gets its collective cassock in a twist about sexuality, particularly in matters carnal and marital, so a step in the right direction you might think. Allegedly the cheeky ordinands went a tad too far for some when they held the service in Polari, a slang language of mixed origins once used in Britain by sinners on the social margins – actors (when acting was considered little better than whoring), circus types, villains, ladies of the night, and up to the seventies, gay people.
So, instead of…
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The congregation got…
Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy.
The college principal ‘hugely regretted’ the use of an unauthorised liturgy. In other words he threw a queeny fit. Personally, I think it’s much ado about nothing. It wasn’t a public service and, since the Bible has been translated many, many times down the ages from the Hebrew and Greek texts, who’s to say the Polari version is any less legitimate? A fairy tale is a fairly tale whatever language it’s in.
Polari died out when times became less buttoned-up but a few words have entered into modern parlance – naff and camp among them. It has a delicious un-PC vocabulary of wonderfully ripe terms. Here’s a few…
Basket (a man’s bulge through his clothes); bibi (bisexual); bona (good); bona nochy (a good night); bungery (pub); buvare (a drink); camp (effeminate); carts (willy); chicken (young man); cottage (a public convenience used for jollies); dilly boy (rent boy); dish (bum); eek (face); handbag (money); jubes (breasts); lallies (legs); mince (walk); naff (nasty); national handbag (welfare benefits); omi (man) omi-palone (camp queen); plate (oral sex); palone (woman); palone-omi (lesbian); remould (sex change); riah (hair) rough trade (working class sex); slap (makeup); todd (alone); tootsie trade (sex between two passive partners); trade (sex); troll (to walk about looking for sex): varda (see).
Varda the godly chickens!
If Christmas was sedate and tranquil, January was an exploding glitter ball. The month began with the high flying Cinderella at the London Palladium, the middle featured La La Land, the bookie’s favourite at the Oscars, and the grand finale was a splendid performance of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at Norwich’s very own Theatre Royal. Literally meaning ‘the cage of crazy women’ – in fact ‘folles’ is French slang for screaming ladies of an entirely different gender. ‘Cage’ enjoys a glorious pedigree – the original 1973 French play, the 1978 (my coming out year) Franco-Italian film, ‘The Birdcage’, a 1996 Hollywood remake starring the late, great Robin Williams and a multi-gonged stage musical. The latest revival is now doing the rounds in the provinces. After Trump’s depressing God’s own country speech at his inauguration, it certainly revived me with its delicious ‘I am what I am’ bugger the bigots message. John Partridge’s performance as Albin, the ageing drag queen, was a revelation – totally OTT one minute, delicately poignant the next. The Norwich crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.