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.
We’ve just celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary – steel according to some traditions – so I bought Liam a metal whistle to use when he’s trying to bring me to heel – good luck with that one! We revelled in some style with a spot of lunch at Bishop’s – one of Norwich’s best eateries – all posh nosh and fine wine. Afterwards, we staggered up St Andrew’s Hill for digestifs at The Cosy Club – one of the city’s swankiest drinking dens – fashioned from the Victorian grandeur of the old NatWest bank on London Street. There is nothing particularly cosy about the lavish interior. More style over substance we thought.
As well as our legs-eleven anniversary, it was also thirteen years since we first met after work in a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square in old London Town. Our eyes met across the crowd of boozing suits and bewildered tourists. Liam reeled me in with a double gin. And that, as they say, was that. The number thirteen may be unlucky for some, but definitely not for me.
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.
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.
It’s an old joke and I tell it every year to groans from Liam.
Liam slipped his ring on my finger two years later. It’s been stuck there ever since.
We ‘formed’ a civil partnership, which always sounded like a firm of solicitors to me. We called it ‘a bit of a do’ and invited our nearest and dearest to the party. Six years later, same sex marriage was legalised and we upgraded to equality class as soon as we were able. Due to a bit of legal hocus pocus, our civil partnership was struck from the record like it never existed and replaced by our marriage.
On the day of our anniversary – our tin anniversary according to tradition – we decided on some posh lunchtime nosh followed by a mini pub-crawl. A meal at Bishop’s had been on our bucket list for a while and we weren’t disappointed. It was divine. The fancy gin aperitif was a great starter. Then we hit the bars.
We didn’t actually sup in all of these establishments, just selected the best from the menu as we meandered round town. Nevertheless, we were a tad tipsy by the time we fell into bed. Pity poor Liam who had work the next day.
Next month, Liam’s planned an anniversary tour of the Smoke to relive that fateful moment when our eyes first met across a crowded bar of after-work desperados.