Look, I knew I wasn’t the most popular person around but the looks I had been getting for the last few days were enough to make any seventeen-year-old feel positively paranoid. OK, I was a bit of the oddball on the estate but what of it? It wasn’t as if I was around enough to cause problems for anyone. My relationship with Wednesbury was quite simple: I didn’t like Wednesbury, and it was quite clear from the looks I was getting that Wednesbury did not like me.
Not that I can blame them. I was not what a Black Country town expects of its youth. Worse still, I had really upset the apple cart. Brought the town’s proudest institution into disrepute and smashed it across the headlines around the world. The majority of the inhabitants of the town might have been to the left end of the socialist spectrum but one thing they did not like was revolution; I was the revolutionary.
Well, if you are different, be different, that’s my motto — and I am different.
Flower power had not arrived in England in nineteen sixty-six. The idea of a hippy had only just begun to be grasped — hell, Ginsberg had only just invented the term a year before. I’m not sure it had fully arrived in California, but I had adopted it. No matter that I had certainly adopted it without knowing what it was. My hair was long, tied back in a pony tail, in an age when anything other than short back and sides was considered risky. My shirts were bright when white or workman’s blue were the only acceptable colours. My coat was a full length Afghan, and it was the genuine article, a gift from an extremely grateful Afghan diplomat I was very friendly with down in London.
That was the other thing. After being thrown out of college and bringing the college down, or at least the highly respected principal thereof, no local firm would employ me. So I had to find work away from home, which I must admit was not a hardship. Unfortunately, I did not have the qualifications for a decent job that would allow me to work away from home. Therefore, I had done the only thing possible and taken an indecent job. Well, one has to make a living.
Oh, if anyone checked, I was a freelance editorial assistant at a discreet publishing house just off St Martin’s Lane. I often assisted some of the editors there when they needed a bit of release. In fact, I had assisted a number of men in the two years that I had been down in London.
Technically I was not a common whore when down in London. Besides the question of gender, there was also the matter that I was not paid for the provision of my sexual services. This was a somewhat moot point as I must admit the gifts that came my way were more than enough to give me the lifestyle that I enjoyed. Alright, I could only afford a small bedsit in Finsbury Park but it was not as if I was there that often.
Unfortunately, there was a downside to my way of life. Every now and then some do-gooder would raise a stink about rent boys. Whenever this happened there would be a police clampdown, which meant that from time to time it was best not to be in London. Fortunately, a rather nice chief superintendent at the Yard was kind enough to advise me and my friends, all who had similar lifestyles, when it might be advisable to make ourselves scarce for a few weeks. For a lucky few of my friends this meant a sojourn at the country estate of whichever lord they were fucking or being fucked by at the time. Sometimes they and their benefactor found the stay so pleasant that they would make it permanent.
I, like most of my fellow exponents of the relaxed lifestyle, had no such work benefit. For us it was a case of going home, wherever home might be. For me that meant Wednesbury. So it was that I had turned up in the last few days of a rather cold March at my parents’ house and informed them that I would be around for a few weeks. Dad, I must say, did not looked too pleased.
Later that Wednesday evening, after he had gone off to his club for his nightly couple of pints and chat with his mates, Mum explained why. It seemed that in the past few months elements from the left wing of the Labour party had set out to take control of the club. In theory, the club had always been non-political, though given the demographic profile of most of its members it was, if anything, essentially Labour. The fact that the local Labour MP was a member, as were all the local Labour councillors, gave some indications of its leanings.
Not that being Labour had any real influence on the club or how it was run. There was in fact a small clique of men who ran the place, changing roles on the committee from time to time, but in general it was the same ten men — there were of course no women on the committee — year after year. Oh, there was the odd person who came on for a year or two but then left when he found that his presence on the committee was not appreciated by the other committee members. New blood was only welcome when the committee put them up for election. If one looked at it more closely one found that most of the committee were in fact related to one another, my father being one of only two on the committee who was not related to any other member. He was from Yorkshire and had moved here for his work. The other nonrelated committeeman was Mr Bernard, from Surrey, who was always elected chairman. He was a local solicitor and Conservative councillor — probably the only Conservative in the Club. By general agreement it was found useful to have somebody from that party on the committee. That way, the Conservatives would never vote against the club’s interest in the Council. There was no way Labour would. They had once done so, apparently by mistake, back in nineteen fifty-five and found that they lost all three local seats at the next Council election. Both parties had taken note.
My father, due to his job, was regarded as quite an important local figure. He was the male district nurse and also Senior Nursing Officer for the St John’s Ambulance brigade, in which capacity he provided training in First Aid for active members of the club who actually took part in the club’s purpose of Civil Defence training.
Because of such importance, he was always on the committee, either as secretary or entertainment secretary. These roles were swapped around every couple of years with his best friend, Bert. This year he was due for election as secretary, for which he should have been a shoe in, except for the unexpected. For once, somebody had been put up for the committee who was not from the ‘select few’. Not only had someone been put up — that was not totally unknown, it had happened from time to time — but somebody had been put up for every committee post, including the officers. That was unheard of. So far as anybody could remember, the last time anyone had been put up for an officer’s post other than a person already on the committee was when Terry the Treasurer had been caught with his hand in the till. That had been six years ago. Even then the person proposed had been a relation of a committee member and thoroughly approved by the committee. He had also been acting as Treasurer since the day the police had taken Terry off for a chat.
Now everybody on the committee was being challenged for their post and challenged by a group of members who were friendly with Big George.
I suspect that readers of today may find it difficult to understand the concept of Red Labour in the 1960s, though they may know of the Militant Tendency, who existed in the 1970s. Like Militant Tendency, Red Labour was effectively a political party inside a political party. It was left of left and believed that the left needed to run everything. Not only because that would be good for the people, which was questionable, but because if they ran it they could use it to further their cause and that of the left, once they had filled their pockets.
From about 1960 onwards they had made moves to take over the crucial roles in the local union organisation. Big George was a key part in that. He was the senior shop steward at the local steel mill. How he had become senior shop steward was something of a mystery as he was a very unpopular man. He had, though, become senior shop steward, and since his appointment as such had increased the numbers of days in the year from two to three to seventeen plus that the works was closed due to strikes. This was an outcome which neither the local mill owners nor a large part of the workforce was very happy with.
Although neither side was happy with Big George as the senior shop steward, neither seemed able to get rid of him. Not that they had not tried. On the two occasions when motions for his dismissal as a shop steward had actually got onto the agenda of a general meeting of the union, no doubt due to some error somewhere, the records show he was always supported by an overwhelming show of hands. Sometimes more hands than there were union members present.
Basically George and his mates set out to win and keep control. They were not too particular about how they went about it. I could understand why Dad was worried. He was right to be — so was everyone else on the committee. However, it was not my concern. I had to make a living, even if I was living at home. Well, I still had to pay my rent on my bedsit in London. Fortunately, my landlord was very understanding, providing I was obliging, which I was.
Well, being five minutes from the tube and only twenty to Piccadilly, overlooking the park and having its own side entrance, it was worth being obliging for. Anyway, the dear really needed some release since his wife had taken up religion. So I helped him and he helped me. Unfortunately, he could only help me so far as it was his wife who kept the books. So I might be able to miss a couple of weeks; he would say I was away on holiday or working or something. Any more time than that and there would be problems. As it was, she was always complaining about how little he was charging me.
So it was off to work for me. Let’s be honest, up in the Black Country I was definitely a whore, though I would claim not common. I would attract some chap’s attention, he would tell me what he wanted and I would name my price. Let me tell you, even in the Black Country I was not cheap. Well, somebody had to pay for the Sobranie Black Russians, not to mention the clothes.
To be honest, I was rather surprised just how much work I was able to pick up. By Saturday night, I had enough to keep me in a style I wanted to be accustomed to for a few days so decided to take the Sunday off. In fact, I did not have much choice about the matter. Sunday bus services are non-existent, especially late at night, and I did not drive. Well, I lived in London and only an idiot drives in London. If you want to get anywhere in the centre, you use the tube or a taxi. Unfortunately trying to hail a taxi in Handsworth or Great Barr at two in the morning is not likely to be very productive.
Now back in Wednesbury for the day and having endured Sunday lunch with my parents, I set off to meet up with one of my old school friends. It was just before eight when I got back home to find the house empty. I guessed my parents had gone round to the club. There was though a message by the phone telling me that someone called Peter had phoned and could I call him back. So I did.
When I got through to Peter he informed me that his friend was looking for some boys to help crew his yacht for a month long cruise round the Med. I pointed out that I did not have the slightest idea how to sail. Peter informed me that neither did he, but that they had professionals for that and needed some professionals for the other. Apparently there were to be some important business guests who would need to be entertained.
After about ten minutes of negotiation it was agreed I would be on the morning eight-thirty train from Birmingham to Derby. Peter assured me that he would meet me at the Derby station and we could take a taxi to his friend’s place in the country, which turned out to be a gate lodge on his father’s estate.
All that being agreed did leave me with one small problem. I had to get myself and my luggage across town to the local station to get the seven twenty into Birmingham to be certain of catching the eight thirty from Birmingham to Derby. That meant either a taxi or a lift. I opted for a lift from Dad as being probably the better option though I decided I better check with him first. So I went round to the club.
As I walked up to the club, Bernard, one of my dad’s friends, was standing by the door. He was probably waiting for his wife to come and pick him up and drop him off at the steel mill for the night shift which would be starting in a just over an hour. I greeted him as I approached.
“Oh Paul, look, I wouldn’t go in there if I was you.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well, since you came back last week there has been a lot of talk in the club about you. People are saying you’re queer and such.”
“Look Bernard, they have been talking about me since I was fourteen. As to whether I’m queer or such, there are enough men in there who know the answer to that.” Bernard had the decency to blush at that comment.
“I know, Paul, but this is a bit different. George and his mates have been stirring it up this last few days. It’s a way to get at your dad. Anyway, George came in tonight and said to your dad, ‘I see that son of yours is plying his trade in Aunties again.’”
“Aunties!” I exclaimed.
Bernard nodded. “He’s telling everybody and his mates are spreading it round. Your dad’s really upset.”
I could understand why. Aunties, a pub in Walsall, was one of the few openly queer establishments in the country. Actually, one of the few openly queer establishments in the English speaking world — as such it had achieved world notoriety. It was even mentioned in books about homosexuality.
Now it is one thing to be suspected of being queer — you could even get away with being known to be queer provided nobody had to admit to knowing it. However, to openly acknowledge you were queer by being seen at a notorious queer establishment was something totally different. There were some things in Wednesbury society one just could not get away with. This had to be dealt with.
I left Bernard outside waiting for his wife and entered the lobby. From beyond the inner door came the general noise of a Sunday night in a working men’s club. Everybody was talking that bit too loud so they could be heard over the general noise of the place.
Fumbling in my pocket, I found a half-crown then pushed the double doors open and walked into the club, turning immediately to the bar. The barman looked a bit startled as I approached; I put the money on the bar and asked for my usual. That’s a straight tonic water with ice and lemon. People tend to assume it’s a gin and tonic but in my line of work it is often better to have a clear head. The noise level in the club room dropped, and as it approached near silence I could pick out the odd near whisper of ‘that’s him’.
Looking down the room, I could see my father sitting at his usual table by the stage at the far end. He was looking rather red in the face. George was seated at a table about a third of the way down the room on the left-hand side. Now there are times to walk boldly forth and there are times to mince. This was a time to mince and I could mince with the best of them.
A hundred and sixty odd pairs of eyes followed me as I minced my way down that room. There was only one pair of eyes that mattered at that moment and they were George’s. I caught them in my gaze the moment after I turned to the room and I held them there as I progressed down the room in silence.
At first, as I approached his table, there was a look of satisfaction on his face. Then there was a hint of uncertainty as he became aware that the direction of my mince was taking me directly towards his table rather than down the room to my father’s. It became more than a hint as I stopped at his table, leaned over and whispered, “George darling, who was the gorgeous boy I saw you with in Aunties?”
Now one of my childhood afflictions was a severe speech defect. That had resulted in ten years of speech therapy on the National Health Service. The result was that I could speak without any hint of a regional accent. It had also had the salutary effect of teaching me how to project my voice. Combine that with that my involvement in school and amateur dramatics and the result was a stage whisper that could fill the Albert Hall. Everybody in that room heard what I said. There was a general intake of breath.
They knew I had been in Aunties, George had confirmed that, so it followed…
George started to rise from his seat, failing to notice that I had strategically spilt a drop of tonic from my glass. He raised himself to his full height, the bulk of his shoulders forced out to their maximum. I pointedly looked down at his crotch where a patch of dampness was spreading. It is surprising how far a small drop of tonic will spread.
“Oh, you’ve creamed yourself!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t know I could still have that effect on you — thought I was too old. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you for it this time.” With that I turned and walked away to my father’s table. George just stood there, looking somewhat lost.
Of course the difficult part of the whole thing was explaining to my parents later that evening, once we were home, that I had never been in Aunties in my life.
“But why did you say that you had seen George there?” my mother asked.
“Mam, if I had denied being in Aunties nobody would have believed me. However, if I said I had seen George there with a boy, everybody would believe it. After all, he had already confirmed that I had been in Aunties. Once I stated I had seen him there, it was obvious to them that for him to have seen me in Aunties, he must have been in there to see me. It was no use his denying it — he had already told everybody that I had been there.”
George never went in the Civil Defence Club again. Once he was no longer there, his mates soon lost interest in standing for the committee and life returned to normal. A couple of months later there were the annual elections at the steel mill for shop stewards; George was not re-elected.
Peter and I flew to Venice a few days later. We were supposed to meet up with Peter’s friend at the marina but we met this delightful Conte who insisted that we must see the paintings on the ceilings of his palazzo. They all seemed to be on ceilings of bedrooms which meant a lot of lying on our backs in his beds to admire them.
Copyright © 2016 Nigel Gordon. All rights reserved.
My thanks to TT, Cole and Mike for their help in editing and checking.
Note: Aunties existed at the time this story was set. It was the Fountain Inn in Bolt Lane, Walsall. The licence of the premises was taken over by Alice Cronin, a former music hall and variety performer, in 1940. It quickly became a meeting place for homosexual men and women. By 1960 it was well known in the queer community and was mentioned in a number of books on homosexuality. The Fountain Inn closed following Alice’s death around the time the law in England on homosexuality changed (1967).