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.
asked the driver in broad Naarfuk as we clambered into the back of the taxi. Here we go, I thought. We’re gonna have thatconversation again.
Cabbies are notorious chatterboxes, aren’t they? I think it’s in the job description. And they’ve usually got a view on absolutely everything, with opinions often slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. I knew where the conversation was heading and I didn’t fancy going round the houses so I cut straight to the chase.
“No, we’re husbands.”
“Oh, reet. Me youngest is gay too.”
It turns out our local yokel is totally unfazed by his son’s sexuality and he told us about it – loudly and proudly all the way.
“’Bin goin’ steady wiv the boyfriend for a couple of year now. I ‘ear weddin’ bells. I might get me a noo ‘at!”
I first met Clive Smith a few weeks into our first year of secondary school. My very first memory was him doing a skit of ‘The Fenn Street Gang’ – some of you oldies may remember the seventies sitcom. He was doing all the voices, mostly female I have to say. It was hysterical. I liked him instantly. A theatrical life beckoned.
We travelled together through our teenage years – birds of a feather, you could say. And what adventures we had.
There were the incredible school trips – all the way to Russia by train then back by sea on an old Soviet rust bucket. We shared the boat with a girl’s school from Scarborough and attempted to chat up the lasses – really, who were we trying to kid?
Then, a couple of years later, there was Transylvania – not many people go there. Sadly we never got to see Dracula’s Castle but we did see an awful lot of snow-capped mountains and tedious communist-era architecture. Yes, amazing trips. Not many schools put on that kind of show. How lucky were we? And I’m sure this is where Clive acquired his wanderlust. Who could forget the tale of a young Clive sailing up the Irrawaddy to smoke dubious substances with the locals. Not me; I never let him forget it.
But it was the afternoons in the front room of Clive’s home in South London I remember and treasure the most – gossiping and talking schoolboy sex to a soundtrack of Elton, 10cc, Alice Cooper and Bowie – lots of Bowie – oh, and way too much Roxy Music for my liking.
In the late seventies, Clive came to see me at work in Habitat on Chelsea’s King’s Road. He had something to tell me. ‘I’m gay,’ he announced. He’d come out to me next to a stack of trendy crockery in the middle of the shop floor. ‘No, you’re not,’ I replied. ‘I’d know if you were.’ Shows how little I did know.
For years after, Clive was always my Christmas Day guest of choice. Best thing was, veggie Clive always brought his own nut roast. How we laughed over the Coronation Street board game he brought one year. No we didn’t. It was rubbish.
Clive’s greatest attribute was his loyalty, to me certainly, even when I didn’t always deserve it. Typically, he was the first to visit me and Liam in Turkey – no mean feat out of season – and the first to drop by when we moved to the middle of nowhere in Norfolk, house-warmer in hand. It was a bottle of port. He knew us so well. He always kept in touch through time and distance. That was his talent.
I’d known Clive for nearly half a century and, for nearly half a century, we debated and argued, bitched and joked, fell out and fell in, laughed and cried, shared secrets and naughty thoughts.
We may have bickered for nearly fifty years but for nearly fifty years we also loved, more like brothers than friends. And that’s what counts in the end. So all I can now say is, ‘Missing you already.’
Clive died suddenly and without warning from a cardiac arrest on 16th January 2020. He was 58.
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.