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.

Pith, Path and Poof

Anyone growing up in Seventies Britain will remember that the word ‘poof’ was the insult of choice for red-blooded males in their crotch-hugging loon pants, polyester tank tops, bouffant hairdos and BO. The abuse was often accompanied by a teapot impersonation. Oh, how I laughed. These days the word seems quaintly old-fashioned and has been (almost) consigned to history along with flock wallpaper, velour three-piece suites, fondue sets, beige teasmades with corn motifs and the curly perm.

Poof

I’ve often wondered about the origin of the word. A quick Google reveals a variety of explanations from a suitably camp French headdress to some fanciful tale about the sound of a fart; neither of which rings true to me. Now I think I’ve cracked it. Liam and I were watching ‘The Secrets of the Castle,’ a BBC show about the construction of a medieval fortress employing the building techniques of the day (I know, I know, we ought to get out more). One of the many absorbing details uncovered by the experimental archaeology was the old grading of sandstone into hard (pith), medium (path) and soft (poof). There you have it. Shirt lifters have always been considered a bit soft, never quite man enough to make the grade, butch-wise. Not that this was the case with Billy Moss, a prison officer I once dallied with in the Nineties. One warm summer’s evening we were enjoying a pint outside the Colherne Pub in West London, the grand-daddy of gay bars back in the day. As we supped, a delivery van passed by, stopping at a red light. The tattooed driver shouted over something rather unpleasant. Billy handed me his pint, swaggered over, squared up to the driver and said,

‘Come on then, mate. You want some? And after you can tell yer wife you got beaten up by a big poof.’

While I don’t condone the threat of violence, I must confess that the look of fear on the white van man’s face was a real treat as he hit the gas to make a quick getaway. I wonder where Billy is now?

World AIDS Day, RIP

World AIDS Day, RIP

A few weeks, back Liam and I watched a biopic of Kenny Everett on BBC4. ‘Best Possible Taste’ documented cuddly Kenny’s struggle to achieve personal happiness and professional recognition. The film was cleverly narrated throughout by the pantheon of Kenny’s comic creations. Kenny and his characters were brilliantly reconstructed by Oliver Lansley, who perfected Kenny’s high camp mannerisms and anarchic style. I’d forgotten just how funny and original Kenny was, and how far he pushed the boundaries. For most of his adult life Kenny was resolutely in the closet even when it was obvious to everyone (including his long-suffering wife) that he was as bent as a nine bob note. Abstinence wasn’t his game, just denial. For very good reasons, the closet was a crowded house back then. Like all of us, Kenny was entitled to his privacy and, as far as I know, he never said anything negative about gay people (unlike some of his closeted contemporaries). He came out just before the tabloids forced him out and he did so in typical OTT style. I didn’t know Kenny but I saw him occasionally, usually at the Sunday night gay gordons at the Dog and Fox in Wimbledon Village. He was always attended by fawning acolytes, as is the way for the rich and famous.

Kenny was an irrepressible one-off whose off-script ad-libbing frequently got him got him the sack. His ill-judged appearance at a Tory Party Conference where he urged delegates to “…kick Michael Foot’s* stick away,” did him no favours but he redeemed himself by telling a very rude joke about Margaret Thatcher live on Radio 2. He was instantly dismissed for the misdemeanour. Kenny died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was 50. That was the same year I met John. Those who have read my book will know that he died of an AIDS-related illness in 2003. John was 36.

Today is World AIDS Day. It doesn’t get the coverage it once did. In the rich world people aren’t falling off their barstools like they used to. It was not always so. One balmy evening in the summer of 2004 I was having a drink with an old friend in the Colherne, once the grand old dame of London gay bars. I looked around.

“Just a load of old uglies in tonight,” I said.

“That’s because all the handsome ones are dead,” he replied.

Cruel and cutting or just a bald statement of fact? The truth is, most of the gay people I knew in my twenties are dead.

When AIDS first hit the headlines  the Reagan Administration across the Pond shamefully sat on its hands (well, it was divine retribution on fags and smack-heads after all) until it became blindingly obvious that, unlike Reagan, the Lord’s wrath wasn’t the least bit discriminating. Ironically, given the Thatcher Government’s abysmal record on minority rights, it was the Tories who chucked money at the problem – into research, awareness and care. From the mid-Eighties right through to the late Noughties, Britain had some of the best services for people with HIV and AIDS to be found anywhere in the world. These days, HIV is something you live with not die from (unless you have the misfortune to be born in much of Africa, but that’s another depressing story). But, AIDS is still with us, stalking the bars and the chat rooms. There is no cure, no vaccine – maybe one day but not yet. It pains me to see young people playing Russian roulette through some misguided notion that AIDS is an old queen’s disease or thinking that if they do get it, a pill a day will keep the Grim Reaper at bay. This is no way to think or to live. Heed the advice of an old pro who ducked the Reaper’s scythe by the skin of his teeth. Pick up the condoms that are still freely available in gay bars. Go dressed to the party. It may save your life.

*Michael Foot was the Leader of the Labour Party at the time and used a stick to help him walk.