Memories Four

The Visit

by Nigel Gordon

The law which legalised homosexual activity between two consenting adults in private was just over two years old when we finally got the help centre opened. I say we, but I had a hand in only a very small part in it. Fortunately, that part belonged to the leader of the local Labour group on the council, and I was able to make him see the benefit of the Labour group supporting our application for a grant and premises. Not that it did that much good.

The premises we were given were in the basement of a council-owned property on a side road off a road, that itself was off the prime shopping location. Yes, we were allowed to put up a sign, saying we were there. The sign had to be a maximum of six inches by four inches and could only say advice and support services. We were not allowed to use the words gay or homosexual on the sign. We were also not allowed to give any indication of where we were in the building. In a basement room, situated at the back of the building, accessed from a set of stairs from the back courtyard.

All in all, walk-in access to the advice and support centre was, to say the least, strictly limited. It was not helped by the fact that the council staff kept the other possible route in through the double gates and into the yard, then down the steps to our basement room, inoperable. This was achieved by the gates being firmly locked at all times when the advice and support centre was open. Mr. Perkins, the building supervisor, made sure of that.

We had two phone lines into the centre. They were strictly for incoming calls only. With the funding we had, we could not afford to call out. Our telephone number was widely displayed on posters that had been put in the gay and lesbian clubs, friendly pubs and a few other locations which would allow material that promoted a deviant lifestyle to be displayed. There were not many. Also, what gay press was around published our contact number free of charge.

In theory we were funded to supply support and advice to inhabitants of the borough. That is what funding was designated for in the grant application we put in. In practice we would support anyone who needed our services. We got away with doing this by claiming that the support given to persons originating outside of the borough was supported by the contributions which we collected from the gay community.

The advice and support centre was supposed to be open from eight in the morning till eight at night, seven days a week. It was staffed by volunteers, who did six-hour shifts. Eight to two and two to eight. At least that was the theory. In practice very few of the volunteers could cover a full six hours. We mostly did three to four hours. No matter, somehow, Blackie, the big bull dyke lesbian who managed the place, always had some cover in place, though not always the male and female staffing which was preferred. On this day I was due to cover from two till five, however, I had been told I had to be in by one at the latest and it might be six before I was able to leave.

"What's going on?" I asked, as I entered our underground cubbyhole. "Our sign has been removed."

"I know," Michael replied. "They don't want to embarrass their visitor."

"That's why you had to come in early," Blackie informed me. "They did not want to risk the chance that one of us deviants might be seen by their royal personages."

"They might not survive the shock of meeting a queer," Michael informed me. "By the way how did you survive Sunday."

I laughed. Blackie gave Michael a funny look. He was supposed to have gone with us on Sunday but had chickened out. At least Blackie said he had. According to Michael, his mother had turned up for an unexpected visit. Having met Michael's mother, I found this very difficult to believe. She was the type of woman who did everything according to a pre-planned agenda. Part of that agenda was that Michael was going to marry the Lady Samantha when he was twenty-five. Nothing, including the fact that Michael was a screaming queer who made even Larry Grayson look straight, was going to interfere with her plans.

I could not see Michael's mother turning up unexpectedly on Sunday, so preventing him joining Blackie and me on a visit to the Gateways. What I could see, was Michael phoning his mother and asking her to visit, so he would have an excuse not to join us.

The reason he did not want to join us was because he was scared. Well, the Green Door had a bit of a reputation. There was even a song based upon it or so they said. The Green Door was the door of the Gateways Club off the King's Road. Before the war it had been a Bohemian club with a strong lesbian membership, though there had been gay men and artists who were also members. After the war, it became strictly a lesbian club, except for Sunday lunchtimes. At Sunday lunch the ladies were allowed to take in male visitors.

I am not sure who came up with the idea, it certainly was not Blackie, but she jumped in on it once it was brought up. At the time there were a number of gay helplines and advice centres across London. Where possible they tried to man them so there was always at least one gay male and one lesbian on duty at any one time. That way there was somebody who a client could connect with when they came in or phoned us. Remember back in those days it simply LG, there was no BTQ+ even thought of.

At least that was the theory. It was thought the lesbian could tell the lesbian callers where the meeting places and lesbian events were and what they were like. The gay male could tell the gay male callers about the meeting places and events for the gay males. The problem was that a lot of the time you did not have that mix on duty.

Let us be honest, with the best will in the world, there was no way that I could tell any lesbian caller what Gateways was like. By the same token Blackie had no idea what Sailor's was like. To address this problem, somebody had come up with the idea that we should visit each other's clubs and venues. A couple of weeks ago Michael and I had taken Blackie to the Shaftsbury, a gay-frequented pub on St. Martin's Lane, we had then gone on to the Apollo on Wardour Street. Last Sunday was the return leg. Blackie was taking us as guests in the Gateways Club with its infamous green door.

I had met Blackie at Sloane Square, outside the tube station. I, of course, having come by tube from Finsbury Park, Blackie having walked round from her place in Eaton Terrace. I say walked, it was more a case of sloshing round, giving the rain that was pouring down. Even with our umbrellas, the pair of us must have looked like a pair of drowned rats by the time we reached the door of the Gateways Club. Really, we should have taken a cab, but I could not afford to, and Blackie would not insult me by offering to pay for a cab. She may have been a bull dyke lesbian, but she was still a lady. A gentleman, at least back then, would never allow a lady to pay for a cab.

Fortunately, we were not the only drowned rats arriving that lunchtime. So, I did not feel totally out of place once we had negotiated our way through the green door and down the stairs into the basement that formed the Gateways Club.

I had always considered Blackie to be a butch bull dyke. Arriving at the bottom of the stairs I found out that when it came to being butch, Blackie was definitely fem. Standing around the bar were half a dozen females who I had no doubt would put the fear of God into a regimental sergeant major. I was to learn later that they probably had. Most, if not all of them, had a background in the armed forces.

Before I could even contemplate pushing my way through to the bar to get a drink, Blackie informed me that she would sort out the drinks, I was a guest and so was not allowed to purchase anything at the bar. I was about to object when I felt a pair of ample breasts pushed against my back and some arms hug me.

"What the fuck are you doing here, darling." I turned to find myself facing the amply bosomed figure of Diana Dors, the film star, at least she was a star of British films. Before I had chance to answer, I was dragged to a nearby table, where I was secreted between the actress and a well-known romance writer of the female persuasion, whose presence somewhat surprised me. Not because she was there. I was surprised because she was not in pink.

The actress insisted that I explain what I was doing in the Gateways, as she only knew me from a couple of photographic sessions when I had done some publicity photos for her and that had been a few months earlier. I say I had done. That's pushing things really. I had only been the photographic assistant, moving lights around as my friend Tony had suggested. He had allowed me to take a few photos to finish the shoot, although he had directed how Diana should be posed for each of them.

The next ten minutes or so, while Blackie was getting the drinks, were spent in me telling Diana and Barb about the advice centre, what we did and how it was funded. They peppered me with questions. So did the bull dyke who appeared to be Diana's security. I was to later learn that she was in the Metropolitan Police and had some connection with the Palace.

Before the inquisition that I was being subjected to could get too extreme, I was sure the bull dyke was looking around for the instruments of the question[1], Blackie saved me with the drinks and an insistence that I meet Smithy, who presided over the bar. Half an hour later I had an understanding of not only what went on at the Gateways Club but also who I should refer people to. One of these was a woman called Ann. She worked in the press office at Buckingham Palace, which was to come in useful some years later, but that is another story.

Ann was interested in the work we were doing at the advice centre, which resulted in Blackie and me spending the rest of my allocated time there briefing her on our activities. This resulted in a promise from her to help with our publicity campaign. To this end I had agreed to meet with her the next evening with copies of the leaflets and material that we had available.

It was during that meeting the next evening that I found out that Ann and I also shared another interest, we both did magic. Ann bemoaned the fact that the Magic Circle would not admit women. I pointed out that neither did the British Magical Society, the oldest club of magicians in England. That was why the Staffordshire Magical Society was formed, they did admit women. They had also admitted me as a member.

What was supposed to have been a half hour meeting in the early evening, ended up running late into the night. We had borrowed a pack of cards from the bar and sat swapping card tricks. Things only came to an end when we both noticed we were in danger of missing our last tube home.

Although I had done an evening session at the centre, the Thursday after my visit to the Gateways Club and my evening discussing magic with Ann was the first session I had done when Blackie was on duty. Technically, Blackie was one of the supervisors and there should have been two volunteers on duty to handle any telephone calls or walk-in queries, as if we were going to get any walk-ins down in our cubbyhole. In practice, it was rare that there were enough volunteers to provide two persons cover at all times, so often the supervisors had to step in. Like today. No sooner had I arrived than Michael signed off.

That is not quite fair. He did listen to what I had to say about Gateways and he took me through the handover, telling me about the calls they had received during his stint. That done, he was off. Not that I can blame him. When I looked at the sign-in sheet, I saw he had been on duty since midnight. A fact I mentioned to Blackie.

"I know, love, but we do not have enough volunteers and can't afford to pay more staff."

"How many paid staff do we have?" I asked. I did not know there were any, other than the supervisors.

"Two of the counsellors are paid, but only for ten hours a week," Blackie informed me.

Just then the door opened and Mr. Perkins the building supervisor walked in. He never rang the bell, though the sign on the door said, 'Please Ring the Bell'. I think he was hoping to find whoever was in there in a compromising position. A fat chance if it was Blackie and me in the place.

"Just checking you are all down here," Perkins stated. "We've got a VIP coming this afternoon and we don't want anyone wandering around. So, please don't come out till four-thirty, they will be gone by then."

Who they were was not stated. However, by the bunting which festooned the front of the building, I guessed it was some member of the Royal family.

Shortly before two the faint sounds of cheers permeated into our lair. Fortunately, it was very muted. I was on the phone assuring a mother that just because he was gay her rugby-playing son was not going to start wearing her dresses. He was gay, not transvestite. At least I hoped he was not a transvestite. She had already informed me that he was a six-foot six fireman who had a beard. I really could not cope with the idea of that in a frilly tutu.

Blackie was less fortunate. She was dealing with a fourteen-year-old, who had been thrown out of his home by his father after he had found out that the boy had been buggered by his neighbour. Apparently, it could not be the neighbour's fault, he was a respectable man. The son must have corrupted him.

Calls like this put us in a difficult position. Technically we could not help. We were not even supposed to continue the call once we knew that the caller was under twenty-one. One good thing was these were the days before the advent of automatic call recording systems, so the only person who would know if we did give such advice, besides ourselves, was the caller. So, we did the best we could and, if they were in London or on their way down, pointed them in the direction of Ken Leech at St. Anne's Church in Soho. Ken had founded the charity Centrepoint to help homeless youths. Unfortunately, even he was not allowed to help those under sixteen, though he often did, claiming that they had lied about their age. More than once we had told fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, to tell him they were sixteen, just to get a bed for the night.

I had just made us a cup of tea during a lull in the calls when the door flew open. I turned, expecting to find Mr. Perkins once again paying us a visit. It was not. I found myself face to face with HRH Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Behind him stood an entourage, who looked somewhat perplexed.

"What are you lot doing, hidden away down here?" he asked, rather bluntly.

Blackie, who had immediately come to her feet and only just managed to stop herself saluting, it had only been three years since she had been thrown out of the WRENS, immediately started to explain.

"So, you're here to help queers who have problems?" the Duke asked.

"Yes, Sir," Blackie replied.

"Not much bloody good you being stuck down here, is it?" he stated. "You need to be somewhere they can find you." That stated he turned to one of his entourage who had a chain of office[2] around his neck. "Don't you agree?"

The man so addressed assured the Duke that he did.

"Good," the Duke stated. He then turned and left, his entourage trailing after him.

The door closed. I turned to Blackie and asked her what that was about. I did not think we were on the tour. She told me that we were not and that she had no idea what was going on. She did though inform me that the man the Duke spoke to was the mayor.

The following Monday when I went in to do a six to midnight shift, I was informed we were moving. Apparently new premises had been found for us by the council. We would now be on the street front with walking access off the street.

[1] The "instruments of question" were the devices used in the Tower of London, and other sites of imprisonment, to torture those taken in for questioning. The main ones being the thumbscrew, the rack, and the pincers.

[2] A "chain of office" is a highly ornate chain worn by officials to signify their rank or status. Those worn by mayors are highly ornate, often consisting of a series of large, enamelled plaques linked together.