Memories Two


by Nigel Gordon

I was never quite certain how or where I met Harry, or Harriette as he preferred to be called. I know he was not on the scene when I first arrived in London in something like a permanent state. I had been in London for short periods before, but now I was escaping to the big smoke. That was in early 1966 or it may have been late 1965. It was well over 55 years ago and innumerable bottles of assorted spirits, so you can't expect me to remember the details. And, let's be honest, there are some details one would prefer to forget.

What I cannot forget is my 19th birthday in 1967, by which time Harriette was definitely around. That, though, is another story, which I may, or may not, tell some other time. This story takes place in the summer of 1968. By now the law has changed and we were legal. At least some of us were legal. I definitely was not. The law stated that to be legal and homosexual you had to be over 21 and doing it in private. That appeared to mean there only had to be two of you, in a bedroom with a locked door, in a house that was otherwise unoccupied. Oh, you also had to remember to shut the curtains.

The change in the law that legalized us, at least some of us, had two consequences. First, many of the establishments that had accommodated us in the past, now made a point of checking our ages, anyone under 21 being barred. That meant that a goodly number of us who supplemented our incomes by being 'friendly' in a personal manner with various male customers of those establishments, found ourselves forced out onto the streets or some less charming establishments, which were not so particular about age verification.

Given the travails of English weather, I can assure you that hanging around on the meat rack at Piccadilly Circus, is not a good idea, even in the summer. As a result, I found myself having to frequent the less salubrious establishments that had recently appeared.

The second impact of the change in the law had been to make the public far more aware of us. They suddenly realized that there were far more of us around than they had ever imagined. This resulted in a number of businesspeople realizing that we constituted a far larger customer base than they had thought. A customer base which was well worth serving. As a result, a number of new venues opened up to supply the gay community with refreshments and entertainment.

One such establishment was a rather run-down public house situated in a rather run-down area of Brixton. Though in those days Brixton was, by definition, run down. The landlady, who responded to a number of names, but I think she was called Floss, was as equally run-down. At some point in the past she had trod the boards, though I doubt if she ever did better than the end of the third row of the chorus line. She had also had a husband at some point. However, it appears, that he vanished sometime in 1944 into a German P.O.W. camp and she never heard from him again, for which her husband was eternally thankful.

In early 1968 Floss decided to make the lounge bar of her establishment into a location where those of us who could no longer obtain entrance to our former drinking establishments, could seek refreshments with those of a similar inclination. Of course, she had to be careful and only allow in those who could at least pass for 18, the legal drinking age in a bar, even if they were not. Of course, the fact that young gay men who could not get into the respectable establishments could be found at Floss's meant that those members of the gay community who liked the company of such young gay men, decided that they would also be found at Floss's. So, as a result of a piece of ill thought-out legislation, a run-down dump of a pub in Brixton became one of the fashionable drinking places for the gay set.

Of course, if somewhere is fashionable, there are certain people who just must be seen there. Harriette, was such a person. At just over six foot, he would sit at the bar, making his presence felt throughout the whole of the lounge bar and beyond. Harriette was probably the only person alive who could out camp Quentin Crisp, without being in drag.

He would totter into the bar on high heels, in black silk trousers and white silk shirt. I can assure you it was a shirt, not a blouse. A shirt has buttons all the way down, a blouse does not. The creations Harriette wore buttoned all the way down. They also had long sleeves which billowed out but fitted tight at the wrists. Around his neck there was a choker of jet-black beads, a deep purple silk scarf draped casually over his shoulders. The purple of the scarf matching the purple of his nail polish, and the patent leather shoulder bag that hung at his side.

Harriette would perch himself on a bar stool at the end of the bar and there hold court. Young men flocked around him, laughing, chatting, sometimes crying. Harriette was there for them, for them to talk to, for them to seek advice from, and sometimes for them to have somebody to commiserate with them. In all the times that I saw Harriette in Floss's I never once saw him pick up one of the lads. He either left at the end of the evening by himself or with a gaggle of boys who were going on somewhere else. Somehow, though, they always seemed to lose Harriette before they got to wherever they were going, while all the other members of the group would still be together.

Years later, many years later in fact, Harriette confirmed to me that he never took any of the boys home, or anywhere else. "It wouldn't have been fair to Sid," he told me. Who Sid was or had been, he did not disclose.

It was well past drinking up time one Saturday evening when a gaggle of us exited Floss's with Harriette at our centre. Somebody had said the Jimmy the Flash was having a party and though none of us had been invited we were all going to attend. Not that Jimmy would have minded. He would not be able to remember who he had invited anyway.

As we exited Floss's lounge bar, we found ourselves faced with half a dozen or so local skinheads, who through comments and behaviour, were making it very clear that their intentions were not peaceful. It was also quite apparent that their main interest seemed to be Harriette, though one did seem to take a dislike to young Clive, a seventeen-year-old lad who came from somewhere around these parts. I looked around to see if any help was available but all I could see were a couple of coppers on the corner. It was perfectly clear that they were intent on looking anywhere other than at the potential altercation which was coming together a hundred yards or so down the street.

I cannot say that I blamed them. The police at that time knew better than to walk around Brixton by themselves. They also knew that it was best to stay out of local affairs. What were a couple of coppers, who were probably not that long out of nappies, going to do against half a dozen skinheads who were no doubt armed?

The biggest of the skinheads, who seemed to be their leader, stepped forward and placed himself squarely in front of Harriette, blowing cigarette smoke into his face. Harriette raised his four-inch black ebony cigarette holder to his lips, took a deep drag on his Sobranie Cocktail, he had a yellow one in the holder at that point, and returned the compliment. He apparently managed to time the blowing out of the smoke with the skinhead's inhalation. This caused the poor boy to have something of a coughing fit, which appeared to annoy him. So much so that he took a swing at Harriette.

I was, at the time, taking dance lessons in modern jazz dancing at the Dance Centre in Floral Street, so was able to appreciate the footwork which Harriette now displayed. It was a combination of a glissade and a pirouette. The result of this excellent footwork was that (a)  the skinhead's punch completely missed Harriette and (b)  somehow Harriette had managed to get behind the skinhead, who now was somewhat off balance having missed his punch.

A gentle waft of Harriette's hand pushed the skinhead even further off balance, causing him to fall forward into the not too clean gutter. Well, the market had only finished a few hours earlier and the street cleaners would not be round for a few more hours.

The young man took offence at this occurrence and upon rising, somewhat smeared with the detritus of the street market, he uttered a set of expletives casting some doubt on Harriette's parentage. At the same time, he reached into his coat and pulled something out, which revealed itself with a loud click to be a locking flick knife.

"You really should not play with knives," Harriette stated. "People get hurt that way."

"Yes, you're going to be fucking hurt," the skinhead replied, lunging at Harriette with the knife.

Well, if Harriette's earlier piece of footwork had been excellent, what now followed was just brilliant. Somehow Harriette managed to move backwards out of the range of the lunge and at the same time his right leg came up, bringing his knee up to his chest, then it shot forward, Harriette foot impacting the skinhead in the upper abdomen. Unfortunately for the skinhead, two factors now came into play. First, was the lamppost which the young man had moments before used to assist his assent from the mire of the gutter. It was immediately behind him, so when Harriette's kick connected with his person, he was prevented from being pushed back, and so experienced the full force of the kick. The second factor was Harriette's shoes or rather their four-inch stiletto heels, one of which was now embedded, to some depth, in the abdominal cavity of the skinhead.

At this point the two coppers on the corner decided that they should take interest in events and came running. One of them apparently summoning assistance on his personal police radio, a device which had only recently come into use. Their arrival on the scene seemed to coincide with the sudden departure of the rest of the skinheads. A moment later a police car, with its lights flashing and its siren wailing, turned into the road.

The leading of the two coppers came up to Harriette and asked, "What the bloody hell happened here?" Harriette opened his shoulder bag, which he had somehow managed to retain through the proceeding events and pulled out one of those small leather wallet type things that are used to hold official identification. He opened it up and showed it to the constable. After that it was all "yes sir, no sir." I am sure if I had listened, I would have heard 'three bags full, sir'.

Of course, we all had to go to the police station to make statements, though Harriette insisted that none of us say anything till his lawyer was present. About half an hour after we had got to the police station and Harriette had made a phone call a bevy of lawyers arrived, a couple of whom I even recognised. About an hour later we were all on our way home or wherever we wanted to go. Harriette insisted we get taxis at that time in the morning.

Floss's closed down shortly after that. I heard on the grapevine that Floss had been advised to move her business elsewhere. It seems, from the gossip I heard, that she opened a late night coffee bar not far from the meat rack.

As for Harriette, I saw him frequently in the London gay scene. I was never one of Harriette's boys, the group of lads who always seemed to be with him, but I was accepted in his circle when I was around. It was some six years later, by which time I had returned to the martial arts and could appreciate the moves that Harriette had done, that I finally asked him about that night. More importantly, where he had learnt that stuff.

"I was a sergeant major in the Allied Army of Occupation in Japan. I was out there for four years because I spoke Japanese."

"You spoke Japanese?" I asked.

"Yes, studied judo before the war and had a Japanese instructor. He taught me the language. Only the basics, of course. When the army found out that I spoke the Nips' lingo they sent me on an intensive course to learn it. While I was in Japan, I had a lot of free time, so I expanded my studies beyond judo. That's where I learnt to kick."

"The kick yes, that I can understand, but the footwork."

"That, Nigel, that came from Aiki Ju Jitsu."

That was the first time I had heard of Aiki Ju Jitsu. It did, though, lead me to taking up Aikido and Atemi Jutsu, which eventually led me to Aiki Ju Jitsu.