Memories is a series of short essays which are set in the period between 1964 and 1975. Most of them are set before 1968, which is when the 1967 law legalizing consensual sex between adult males came into force. This was a period in the mid-1960s before the law was changed, when gay life in England was very different from what it is now.
It was a period when I operated as what was effectively an upmarket rent boy, though at the time I would not have admitted it. I was also active in the gay rights movement. I spent periods of time living and working in London, surviving on the edge of London theatre and celebrity culture. In those days gay culture was still very much underground. It even had its own language, Polari, which I learnt to speak.
In telling these stories, I have changed the names of some of the characters. If they were not out in their lifetimes and have not been outed by others, I am not about do it for them. Also, some of the events which I will allude to in these essays were definitely illegal, not only at the time but still are now, and some of the characters who are still alive could still be subject to prosecution if they were identified. England does not have a statute of limitations. For similar reasons I have moved the location of certain organizations and the events connected with them.
by Nigel Gordon
A thick haze of smoke hung about the club, even when nobody was smoking. There were times when I thought that Alice, the club’s owner, must have a smoke machine somewhere just to maintain the atmosphere. In some ways I was not that far out. Years later I was told she constantly burnt incense cones behind the bar.
The bar was small, cramped into one corner of the room, which itself was cramped into a corner of the top floor of a somewhat decrepit building on Wardour Street, the street that its windows looked out onto. Not that you would find any entrance to the room from the street. You had to be in the know to find the entrance. Fortunately, I was one in the know. I knew that if you turned left off Wardour Street into an alley that would take you down the side of the building. There were a couple of doorways in the side of the building, but these should be ignored. What you wanted was to go down the alley, turn left again into an even darker alley and find the door at the back of the building. You then pressed a particular sequence on the bottom of the three bell pushes, the one with no name on it. If you were lucky, and you knew the right code of bell pushes, somebody would come down and open the door for you.
If you got into the club early enough, you might be lucky enough to get a seat at one of the tables. Otherwise, you would have to find somewhere to drape yourself. Of course, some of the patrons preferred to drape themselves. It was a means of advertising yourself to potential customers. Anyway, they had plenty of experience draping themselves, as that is what they did on the meat rack at Piccadilly Circus for most of the day. Draping, or lolling as it was called, yourself in a provocative manner was the way you got customers. There were plenty of places in the club where boys could drape themselves. Most chose by the bar or by the piano, which stood to the side of the small, raised area that passed for a stage in this establishment.
Tonight, I had no need to find a customer. I was meeting a friend. That is if somebody like James could be a friend of somebody like me. There was a massive social gap between us. James was the younger son of a peer of the realm who had been educated at one of the best schools in the country and then gone on to Cambridge. He was also one of the country’s leading medical researchers. I, on the other hand, was lad from a council estate in the Black Country. There was too big a gap between us for us really to be friends. However, we liked each other and got on well with each other when we were together, which was not a frequent as either of us would have liked.
James had asked me to meet him at the club tonight. He was not certain what time he would be here but hoped it would not be too late. His father, apparently, was insisting that James be present at some social event which was taking place in town. Officially it was due to finish as ten, but as James pointed out, these things tended to overrun badly. He had, though, promised me that he would be at the club as soon as he could after the event ended. Anyway, he had slipped me a couple of pound notes, to cover the cost of drinks that I would be expected to purchase while waiting for him.
I got to the club a bit before ten. It opened at nine, but nobody bothered to be there that early. It was a bit of a surprise to find Jimmy the Flash tickling the ivories when I entered.
Jimmy looked up as I came through the door.
“Hiya, Nig, bona your ecke vada,” he said, saying it was nice to see me. What he actually said was ‘Hello, Nig, good your face looks.’ Polari may be a useful language, but it is a bit limited at times.
I acknowledged his greeting and went over to the bar to get a drink before I grabbed a table. The last thing I wanted to do was get into a conversation with Jimmy. For a start he insisted on calling me Nig, which I hated. Secondly, he always wanted to speak in Polari, and I am not that good with it. However, I was not to be that lucky.
I got myself an overpriced lager and looked around for a table. It being this early meant it was easy to find one. I got one in the window alcove opposite the door. James would be able to see me easily when he arrived. Unfortunately, it was not that far from the piano, upon which Jimmy was giving a not bad rendition of a piece of Gershwin. I was not sure which the work was, but I knew it was from Porgy and Bess. Jimmy played a couple more numbers then took a break. Unfortunately, for me he decided to take a break at the table I had sat myself at.
"So, what you bin makin?" Jimmy enquired, asking what I had been doing.
"Drolled in Phil's this afor," I replied, referring to my mornings work in a questionable bookshop owned by a mutual friend. "Then shimmed down the Dilly."
Actually, I was not sure that I actually 'shimmed' down to Piccadilly Circus. That term implied a somewhat camp style of walking, something I did not do.
Jimmy smiled, then asked. "Trolling or lolling dear?"
I was not doing either. There was no way I would go down there to pick up a boy and I certainly was not going to loll around on the meat rack hoping to be picked up by someone prepared to help me pay the rent. I had gone specifically to find someone. A new boy, Thomas, who I had helped a couple of nights ago. Had to tell him that that a friend had a place where he could sleep.
"Had to pook Thomas that Bertha had a pad for him," I informed Jimmy.
"Thomas, dan't ken him," Jimmy replied, informing me that he did not know Thomas.
"Nu chav, van nort," I told Jimmy, letting him know that Thomas was a new boy on the scene who had come down from the north.
"Chicken?" Jimmy asked, wanting to know if the boy was young.
"Twinky," I replied, letting him know that Thomas was in his late teens, same as me.
Just then Alice came over, I think it was to remind Jimmy that he was supposed to be tinkling the ivories. However, she just asked how things were. Jimmy though got the hint and went back to the piano, which was probably a good thing, as about three minutes later James came in. Once he had got himself a drink, he joined me at the table. He looked tired.
"Bad day?" I asked.
"Not particularly, just a bloody long one. I hate working weekends. I was in at eight and did not finish till half past four. Then had to join father at the Savoy for some fund raiser he's go involved in.."
"How come you did not finish till gone four? You usually get away about three." I commented.
"There are no technicians working over the weekend," James informed me. "So, we have to do everything ourselves. The work takes three times as long.
"What have you been up to today? I presume you were in the shop this morning."
"Yes, though there was very little custom. Never is on a wet Saturday," I replied. "Then spent a couple of hours trying to find a lad who came into the advice centre yesterday to let him know there was a place for him at the shelter."
"Did you find him?"
"Yes, and I fed him."
"Yes, that's where I told him to hang out for me to find him."
James just nodded. He knew the problem. The gay lads either left home or got thrown out of home and headed for London, expecting life to be easier for them here. It was not. If they were lucky, they would find themselves selling themselves on the meat rack at Piccadilly Circus or in the clubs. If they were unlucky, they would be picked up by the Bishop to be used by his clients. In the worse cases they would be picked up, raped, beaten and dumped in the Thames.
Those of us involved in the gay rights movement, did what we could, but it was not much. If they were under seventeen, we could not even get involved. At seventeen they had the right to leave home and we could do something to help. Not that there was much we could do. Most of the homeless hostels would not accept anyone under twenty-one. They were strictly adults only. The ones that would take in older teens would not take any they knew were gay. Indeed, a couple of the church hostels required a declaration that you were not a deviant. There was one hostel down in Newham, which would accept gay lads over sixteen who were homeless. Beth, who ran it, was pushing the boundaries of the regulations.
Thomas had come into the Centre yesterday. I had been on duty from two until six. He had come in about half-past four. From what he told me he had been in Town for five days and was clearly not doing very well.
For a seventeen-year-old, Thomas was small. An elven-looking blond, he looked about fourteen. I had to check his age, as we were not allowed to advise anyone under sixteen. Sixteen to twenty-one was a bit of a grey area. We were told to stick to housing issues only, not that we did. Once I had confirmed he was seventeen and that he had a provisional driving licence, I listened to his story.
It was the all too familiar one. Thomas's father had found out that the boy was gay and thrown him out of the house. Actually, it was not as bad as it could have been. At least the boy's father had allowed him to collect some of his stuff and given him five pounds to get a bus to London. Apparently, his instructions to Thomas had been, "Get on the bloody bus out of town and stay out of town."
That had been on Sunday. He had arrived in London on Monday, late afternoon, and had by midnight been roundly fucked for the first time. Tuesday had not been much better for him, though at least this time he managed to get paid by making sure he got the money before he bent over.
There are some boys who are natural whores. We sell ourselves easily for what we can get out of it. Then there those who learn the trade quickly and manage to cope with life in it. Unfortunately, from the start, it was clear that Thomas was not going to be either. On Wednesday he managed to get robbed of the money he had made on Tuesday, lost his belongings, and been both raped and beaten. From that point on things had gone downhill, till one of the Dilly lads had pointed him in our direction on Friday afternoon.
Now let me make it clear, the Dilly lad had no interest in Thomas's well-being. The only person that a Dilly boy is interested in is himself, and his customer while the customer is paying. Pointing Thomas in the direction of the advice centre was an act of self-interest. The last thing they want is a lad collapsing or even dying around the Circus, it would result in too much police interest. So, they pointed Thomas, who was clearly in no fit state to survive, in the direction of the centre, no doubt in the hope that we could get him off the scene or at least away from the meat rack where he was, to put it mildly, an embarrassment.
So, it was that I found myself facing Thomas across a desk in the basement office on Wardour Street. What was most definitely the case, after listening to Thomas's story, was there was no way he was going to make it on the streets. I was also certain that I would not be able to get him into one of the regular shelters as he was, to put it mildly, camp. It did not matter if he was gay or not, the presumption would be that he was and none of the homeless shelters that accepted under twenty-ones would allow anybody suspected of being gay in, for fear of corruption of the youths already staying there. Though a more corrupt cross section of the population would be difficult to imagine.
I had, of course, phoned Beth, but she had informed me that her shelter was full. However, she was hoping to have a bed free on either the Saturday or the Sunday as one of her long-term residents was moving on. That sorted I dipped into the emergency fund, most of which was provided by James and his friends, to provide Thomas with the funds to get a meal and a room for the night in a hotel that did not ask too many questions.
The main problem was that the centre did not open on weekends or Mondays, the day when we were probably most needed. So, that presented problems with how to contact Beth about the availability of a bed and how to let Thomas know of the result. This, of course, was long before the days of mobile phones. It was long before most people even had a landline.
That said, I arranged to meet Thomas on Saturday afternoon, outside of the Wimpy bar. Saturday mornings I helped in a specialist bookshop just off Charing Cross Road. The owner, Peter, allowed me to use the phone to contact Beth at the hostel in Newham. The news was good. There was a bed for him, so as soon as the shop closed, I shimmed down to the Circus and started to look for Thomas.
Fortunately, it did not take long to find him. Once I had fed him, a hamburger and chips in the Wimpy bar, I put him in a cab, paid the driver the required fare and sent him off to Newham.
Of course, telling James all this took far longer than one might imagine. For a start, he kept interrupting my tale with questions. As a result, the theatre crowd had started to drift in about as I was finishing. They, of course, had been to a show, had a meal and were now coming into the club. A party came in led by Graham Payn, of course, accompanied by Noel.
Quinten Crisp was with them. Whether or not he was actually part of the party or had just attached himself to it somewhere along the way was a matter which was not clear. However, Quinten was definitely within its sphere. Jimmy was still tinkling away on the piano. Quinten suggested to Noel that he should sing something.
"Darling, I've be proclaiming forth for the last two hours, I think my voice deserves a rest. Why don't sing Quinten?"
"Have you heard me sing?" Quinten asked.
"Yes, it's not as bad as the cat."
There was general laughter in the party. Quinten got up and stepped onto the stage. He spoke to Jimmy, who started to knock out a tune from one of the current musicals that were playing in Town. Quinten did not actually sing, he more spoke the words in time and key to the music, like Richard Harris did in My Fair Lady.
There's a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere.
There's a time for us
Someday a time for us
Time together and time to spare
Time to look, time to care.
There was a silence in the club until the song finished. We all knew it. It was from West Side Story. In the musical it is a song between two lovers, but for a group of old queens and rent boys, it meant much more. We all wanted there to be a place for us.