In 1961 a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya was lifted from the National Gallery in London. Only 19 days earlier it had been ‘bought for the nation’ for £140,000, a huge sum to shell out back in the day. But it wasn’t an ill-gotten gain to be fenced to a dodgy dealer. No, it was a modern take on robbing the rich to feed the poor, or rather to pay for their TV licenses. The thief sent a series of ransom notes to the authorities guaranteeing to return the Duke unharmed if elderly people were exempted. It’s a campaign that still rumbles on to this day. But who was the anti-hero behind the audacious heist? None other than Kempton Bunton, a middle-aged cabbie from Newcastle with a messianic sense of social justice.
And now there’s the COVID-delayed film, Duke, based on this extraordinary story and starring Jim Broadbent as Kempton and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife, Dorothy. Both deliver top-notch performances in a very British, very funny and heart-warming Robin Hood tale for the modern age. But does Kempton meet his Waterloo? The answer will surprise.
As an interesting footnote, the painting appears in Dr No, the first James Bond film, where it’s on display in the villain’s lair giving the impression it was stolen to order.
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.
On the second day of our London jolly, we were planning to take in the view from the Shard, until we realised it was thirty quid a piece. So it was enough to see the tallest building in the European Union (not for much longer, of course) from the window of our hotel room. Instead we opted for a slow stroll through the City to the Museum of London. Well, it was free.
Along the way we crossed the Millennium Bridge, skirted around the magnificent St Paul’s, walked beneath Temple Bar and took a snap of Channel Four’s First Dates restaurant.
The Square Mile may be a throbbing epicentre of money and modernity, but the street plan is distinctly medieval and there was a surprise up every alley.
The Museum of London is one of my favourites – quirky, informative and well worth the free entrance!
After a couple of hours travelling from pre-history to the filthy lucre, the West End beckoned and we jumped on a bus to Soho, our spiritual home.
Late lunch was a bowl of Thai at the Tuk Tuk Noodle Bar on Old Compton Street – delicious and still ridiculously cheap – followed by a happy hour or two with the brethren outside the Duke of Wellington. As the warming sun began to set, we headed back to Bankside for an early evening cuddle.
And so ended a glorious few days in the big metropolis. As writer and clergyman Donald Lupton said of London in 1632,
‘…she swarms with all ages, natures, sexes, callings… she seems to be a glutton, for she desires always to be full.’
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.