The Autumn edition of ‘Link’, the South Norfolk Council community magazine, dropped on the mat. Packed with facts and fun, it’s something to thumb through over coffee and a rich tea. It’s the usual recipe of charity gigs, sport and leisure updates, seasonal treats, pub and club news, health and environmental titbits and (groan) advice on preparing for Brexit. But also thrown into the mix is a remarkable full-page piece about a roving exhibition called ‘Helping History Out of the Closet’. Intended to raise awareness about LGBT issues, the show was put together by the Thetford Teenage History Club who were shocked to discover that man-on-man action could once land you in the clink, or worse. Why remarkable?
Well, it isn’t that long ago that a council in liberal London banned a gay support group from an out-of-hours chinwag on council premises for fear of a moral backlash. I guess the powers that be thought it might degenerate into an orgy and frighten the grand old dames of Kensington. I worked for that council and had the keys to the offices in Earls Court so we met anyway, under cover of darkness.
Essentially South Norfolk is one giant field sprinkled with small towns and villages. Like most rural communities, it’s conservative with a small ‘c’ (and sometimes with a massive one) where change is snail-paced and being different can be an isolating and horrible experience. We’ve come a long way. Let’s hope it stays that way.
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.
I was eleven when, in 1972, Tutankhamun last came to town. I queued for hours at the British Museum to get just a fleeting glimpse of that death mask as I filed past with all the other kids bussed in from the four corners of the realm. 47 years later, King Tut’s on tour again – probably his last – and Liam and I caught the London gig at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Sadly, this time Tut left his extraordinary mask at home but there were plenty of other astonishing riches to gasp at. Let the bling speak for itself.
The exhibition – Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh – was very, very busy with lots of polite jostling, reflecting, perhaps, an eternal fascination with the antiquarian boy king and his burial booty. Apparently, ancient Eqyptians believed we all die twice – first with our final breath, and then the last time our name is mentioned. At this rate, young Tut really will live for ever.
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.
The hunky young chap who provided our removals quote was Loddon born and bred and so we had a long chat about village life. His pearls of wisdom were illuminating. ‘People will stare,’ he said, ‘because you’re new. But don’t be put off. It’s their way.’ He also said we won’t be considered locals for decades. Since we’ve not got that many decades left, I suppose that means we’ll always be the strange gays in the village. That’s fine with me. I’ve always been on the outside looking in.
So far everyone’s been delightful – friendly and helpful – but yes, some do stare a bit, but they smile too. We intend to chuck ourselves into village life. And so when we found out our neighbour’s daughter was in the Loddon Players production of ‘Annie, the Musical’, we thought, let’s give it a whirl. Liam popped down to Funky Feet, the local dance studio, to pick up our tickets. The lady at the desk was very welcoming and talkative. It seems the village drums have been banging all over the parish. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
As we’re car-less (and hope to remain so), our neighbours kindly gave us a lift to the venue at the local school. Our very own local pub landlord co-directed and played the male lead with a wonderfully theatrical flourish, ably supported by a classy cast. But the really big gong has to go to the kids’ ensemble whose joyful funky feet danced and sang their way across the stage. The talented young lady who played the eponymous redhead has a bright dramatic future ahead.
Our move date from city to country coincided with tickets to see Armistead Maupin’s one-man show at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Maupin is the author of the Tales of the City series of novels set in San Francisco which chronicle the lives and times of an eclectic group of residents passing through the Barbary Lane boarding house turned apartments owned by Anna Madrigal. We love the books (and subsequent TV serialisations) so it was with heavy hearts we had to give Maupin a miss.
Liam was determined not to miss the next big thing – gay
icon-wise – to come along. And they don’t get bigger than the late, great Judy
Garland. Liam is a BIG fan and was virtually hyperventilating as we took our
seats at Norwich’s Cinema City for ‘Judy’, staring the wonderful Renée
Zellweger in the title role. Liam loves a dead diva.
Covering the brief period when the down-at-heel legend arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of last-chance concerts, ‘Judy’ is not exactly a feel-good film. We all know what happens in the end and watching Judy’s descent into drug and drink-fuelled hell makes grim viewing. But the film is strangely compelling and Ms Zellweger is mesmerising – interpreting rather than parodying Judy’s magical stage presence – and all in her own voice. No miming needed. I hear Oscar knocking.
Organised chaos has reigned for weeks. A production line of cardboard boxes great and small come and go with endless deliveries of stuff we didn’t know we needed. Our recycling bin runneth over and we’re stiff in all the wrong places. Labours are distracted by an abundant flock of squawking ducks, playful blackbirds, inquisitive tits, red-breasted robins and randy wood pigeons who seem to spend their days shitting and shagging. Not a bad life, I guess.
We’re slowing moving towards normality and winter nesting. The essentials are done. The bijou kitchen is fully-functional, the Lady of the House is up, Liam’s keyboard is plugged in and candles lit for sequined nights of Strictly Come Dancing. And we’re slowly getting used to the scary stairs, though only when we’re sober.