2018 and All That

2018 and All That

The world may be going to Hell in a handcart but the Pansies keep on blooming – year in, year out. I keep them fed and watered and I’m grateful to those who pass by to admire the display. As the New Year dawns and more dark clouds lurk on the horizon, it’s a good time to look back at the pansies that perked the most in 2018. Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum, romped home by a mile. Who knew a drag show in a circus tent could strike such a chord?

As for the also-rans, it’s the usual eclectic bunch – as befits my random rants and ramblings from daily life: cowboys, cross-dressers, the curse of modern parlance, movie misses, gym bunnies, Hellenic heaven, and stories old and new from the Land of the Sunrise.

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum | Can I Get, Like, a Coffee? | My Brokeback Mountain Moment | Heal Thyself | Pretty in Pink | Do You Have a Tale to Tell? | Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?A Hard Act to FollowOld Money, No MoneyPostcards from Crete

There’s No Place Like Home was the most shared. Similarly, in 2017, it was Home Sweet Home.  So I guess there really is no place like it.

And what was the most popular post from years past? For the second year running it’s that 2012 camp classic, Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium. It’s the title that won it. Shame on you.

With 2018 all wrapped up, we’re off to the Ivy for some posh nosh and to see in the New Year. Wishing everyone peace and prosperity for 2019.

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum

Le Gateau ChocolatThis year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been in full swing with the usual eclectic mix of the traditional and the avant-garde in words, music, dance, acrobatics and eccentricity. And they don’t come more avant-garde or eccentric than Le Gateau Chocolat, a black, fat bearded drag queen from Nigeria with a rich baritone voice and a thoughtful line in diversity and exclusion. ‘Chocolate Cake’ delivered his jerky, quirky cabaret with pathos and panache, receiving an enthusiastic hand from a full house of well-oiled whiskery types.

Quite by chance, a foe from my pre-Liam Soho days parked his skinny arse in the row in front of us. It was a blast from the past that instantly chilled the air. Thankfully, the cabaret raised the temperature to heart-warming. By the encore, the old foe threw a tantrum (nothing to do with me) and sleeked off into the night with his entourage.

Back to the act…

A Hard Act to Follow

A Hard Act to Follow

When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.

Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.

I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…

You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear

The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,

May now perchance both quake and tremble here,

When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.

And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.

Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.

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It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.

Twisted Cabaret

Twisted Cabaret

Norwich has more medieval churches than you shake a stick at, a church for every week of the year so the saying goes. You can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a stone steeple or Gothic arch. Back in the day, the cloth trade made Norwich rich and the top of the heap paid their way into Heaven by sponsoring medieval masterpieces. The cassock class were more than happy to indulge the myth and take the bung.  But in these more secular times, the Faithful are few: come Sunday, most pews are empty. Some churches have been mothballed – boarded up and padlocked to keep out the elements and the vandals. Many others, though, have been given a new lease of life as arts centres, theatres, museums and exhibition spaces. Such is the case with the Church of St Peter the Less on Barrack Street. The pretty 15th century building miraculously survived the Luftwaffe’s bombs which flattened everything else around one night in 1942, and now sits on a grassy mound by a busy roundabout. Since 1980, the church has been home to the Norwich Puppet Theatre, one of those amazing provincial arts organisations that flourish against all the odds.

When not stringing up the cast to amuse little people, the theatre is available for hire (including civil weddings, ironically). So, one Sunday we took our pews for a performance of Twisted Cabaret by the Knightshift Dance Company and jobbing drag queen, Miss Special K. The fusion of modern community dance with old-school gay showbiz was inventive enough but a man in a frock and ginger wig singing ‘Your son’ll come out tomorrow,’ in a deconsecrated church was deliciously subversive. Those God-fearing old merchants must be spinning in their graves. I loved it.

Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu

I’m sure I’ve been here before.

So said my mother after she took a sip of her brandy and coke and looked around the large smoke-filled room. It was 1980 and I was stepping out with Bernie, a salesman from Somerset. We were treating my mother to a night of slap, sequins and perversion at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, South London’s premier drag pub. As it turned out, her feelings of déjà vu were spot on. In the Swinging Sixties, she and my soldier dad had slipped out from the barracks on the other side of the river to catch an act or two.

Bernie was a close friend of Pat, the jovial landlord. Against all the odds, bent-as-a-nine-bob-note Bernie and straight-as-a-die Pat had consummated their bromance at the horses, shelling out a king’s ransom at the Cheltenham Gold Cup every year.

RoyalVauxhallTavern

Pat was Irish. Digging roads or running pubs were the standard professions for the Irish back in the day. Just a few months before, Pat had been the manager of the Colherne, the grand old queen of gay bars in West London.  But Pat had ambitions to rise above the ranks and saved his pennies. When the tenancy of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern came up, he grabbed it with both hands, moved in his wife and kids and spent a small fortune reconfiguring the original three bars into one large single space. It was a masterstroke that saw the till ka-chinging for years.

Royal Vauxhall Tavern Charity Night

Charity night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern with the late Diana Dors flanked by the Trollettes. That’s Pat the landlord (top row, third from the left. Next to him in the bow tie is someone everyone knew as Terry ‘Allcock’ – can’t think why we called him that.

Image courtesy of the RVT Community.

Time marched on, of course. Pat and his missus retired back to Ireland many moons ago and, sadly, I lost touch with Bernie in about 2006.  The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, however, continued to thrive, standing firm against the constantly changing rainbow landscape as a venue for drag and alternative cabaret.  Arguably, the venue’s most famous turn was Lily Savage, Paul O’Grady’s theatrical alter-ego before he hung up the blond wig and became every housewife’s favourite.

And then the iconic building was bought by an Austrian property development company. There’s a vast building boom going on in Vauxhall and Battersea these days, with a tube line extension, the redevelopment of Nine Elms, Battersea Power Station and a new state of the art American embassy. The future of the pub was looking bleak. That was until some punters swung into action and applied for listed building status. And guess what? They got it. Historic England (the organisation responsible for such things) decided…

…the building has historic and cultural significance as one of the best known and longstanding LGB&T venues…

It’s the first time any building has been listed on this basis. While the new status protects the building for posterity, it doesn’t mean that the venue will survive in its present form but it’s a start, a great start.

Quacky Races

Quacky Races

The Gay Pride marching season is in full mincing swing. But while 40,000 and 160,000 well-wishers lined the parade routes of Belfast and Brighton (respectively) last Saturday, we amused ourselves with something to give even the glitziest of drag queens a run for her sling backs. The Grand Norwich Duck Race, starring oversized bathtub playthings draped in outrageous livery, is a plucky battle fought each year for charity. Once in the waters of the sedate River Wensum, Daffy and his flock all tried to float the wrong way and had to be marshalled up the course by a man in a canoe. Congratulations to the duck from City College for a worthy victory. We retired to the bar of the Playhouse Theatre for a celebratory tipple in the beer garden. Norwich really is quackers.

Phil Starr, Drag Star

Phil Starr, Drag Star

Phill StarrWhen I did a piece on Ruthie Henshall’s Norwich gig a while ago, I slipped in a little anecdote about my pipe cleaning days and a drag queen called Dockyard Doris. This sent me on a trip around You Tube to find old footage of the lovely Doris. I discovered a few clips but none worth showing to your nan. While I was digging, I stumbled across some old recordings of Phil Starr. Warm memories came flooding back of simpler days when a real belly laugh was easier to come by. Phil Starr was an old school drag queen comic with impeccable timing and a closet-full of shaggy dog stories, each with a witty twist. Cutting but never cruel, Phil started his career in the Fifties and played to packed pubs right up to his sudden death in 2005 at the age of 73. I saw Phil sprinkle his fairly dust in the East End and Brighton. I laughed so much, it hurt.

I’ve picked out one example for your delectation. It’s rude, just a little bit crude and not at all PC. Change channels now if you’re easily offended.