The capital has always been a place of liberation for the gay community. But as the old haunts close down how long will that last?by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst / June 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
It is a Saturday afternoon in April—hesitant spring sunshine, the promise of sap rising—and Soho’s Old Compton Street is churning with life. The air is filled with the stop-start grumble of traffic and fragments of conversation: “so I said no,” “that new sushi place,” “Lol,” “where are we going now?” Some people appear to be locals, like the middle-aged couple with matching crewcuts who are trying to hold hands while juggling bags of groceries, or the pensioner with seen-it-all eyes sipping his pint by the entrance of the Admiral Duncan pub. Far more people have the tourists’ habit of flicking glances in all directions, as if worried they might be missing the one experience that would complete the jigsaw puzzle of their holiday.
In Clone Zone, just past the rainbow racks of underwear, a nervous-looking teenager is trying on a pink top that is bright and as tight as a new skin. Cautiously he inspects himself. London has always been a good place to reinvent yourself, and this seems to be on the verge of becoming another transformation scene. The boy is about to adopt a costume that will announce who he is, but also a piece of camouflage that will allow him to melt anonymously into the crowd. For the price of a t-shirt he will be able to slip into a brand new identity and try it on for size.
However, if he stays in Soho he might soon be as conspicuous as Matt Lucas’s Little Britain caricature of “the only gay in the village.” The area’s reputation as London’s leading “gaybourhood” is shrinking fast. Only a few years ago it was full of bars and businesses catering for a largely gay clientele. Today many are boarded up or have been replaced by sleek retail chains. The Shadow Lounge, Barcode, Candy Bar, Green Carnation and more: all gone. An atmosphere that once fizzed with glamour is now as flat as a glass of cheap champagne. As Peter Ackroyd puts it in his new book Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, over the past few years the mood has become increasingly elegiac: “Its contours have been soft, its colours tending to the sepia.”
So if the teenager in Clone Zone wants to experience some excitement, he may need to do more than reinvent himself. He may need to put down roots in another part of London and help to reinvent that too. Perhaps in a few years somewhere else will be as brightly coloured as Soho used to be; perhaps he and his friends will discover that one way to feel more at home in the anonymous scatter of a city is to choose a new neighbourhood and shape it around themselves.
“The gentrification gay businesses helped to stimulate is now pricing them out of the area”
This isn’t a process unique to those who identify themselves somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. (The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.) As Jonathan Raban pointed out in his brilliant 1974 study Soft City, almost everyone who moves to a city like London does something similar. It is an essential urban survival skill, and it depends on the fact that cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. “We mould them in our images,” Raban writes, and “they, in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them.”
Nobody has been better than the LGBTQ community at finding new parts of London to remould like Play-Doh. Raban’s book includes a sketch of Earl’s Court shortly after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partly decriminalised sex between men. Some of his attitudes now look a little dusty, as he describes a pub full of youths fresh from the gym “who bay and squeal like goats,” but the basic premise of men and women moving to a seedy part of London and brightening it up for everyone else remains broadly true. Gay people have always been the shock troops of gentrification, displaying a frontier spirit that more cautious city-dwellers have later benefited from, as coffee shops open and peeling front doors receive fresh coats of Farrow & Ball paint.
After Earl’s Court the caravan moved on to Soho. When I first worked there in the mid-1980s in a bookshop (not the dirty mac variety), it was a place where pimps and hustlers rubbed shoulders (or at least shoulder pads) with visitors who had gone in search of the seedier end of London’s nightlife. Whenever you went there you found the same smell of cheap perfume mixed with disinfectant. Then the neon signs advertising Girls Girls Girls started to be replaced by bars full of boys boys boys. It was as if an underworld was gradually rising to the surface, and I realised that I wanted to be part of it. At the age of 18 I made my first trip to Brewer Street’s legendary cabaret club Madame Jojo’s, a plush venue lined in gilt and velvet like a giant jewellery box, and was ushered in by a towering drag queen who looked me up and down and gave me a conspiratorial wink. It felt strangely like an initiation.
Today Madame Jojo’s is another venue that remains closed, after the owners decided to redevelop the site into luxury flats, presumably for the kind of people who like the idea of living at the gritty heart of London but would rather keep it safely at arm’s length. The same process of gentrification that gay businesses helped to stimulate is now pricing them out of the area, and as a result the LGBTQ community (a word that can mean “a body of people who live in the same place” as well as those “who share the same interests”) is being scattered far and wide.
Such economic cleansing isn’t only occurring in London. Similar changes are happening across Europe, in traditionally gay districts such as Paris’s Marais and Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, and other UK cities are also feeling the squeeze. Outside Ku, the Soho bar, I meet Jackie and her friend Tracy, who are down from Wigan for the day, and they tell me that back home “there’s nowhere for gay people to go any more,” while even Manchester’s gay village has become “a bit of a joke,” full of cackling hen parties and gawping tour groups.
Not everyone regrets these changes. Some argue that 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Labour government, anti-discrimination legislation, shifting social attitudes, and the ubiquitous dating app Grindr will soon make gaybourhoods obsolete. As a character in Russell T Davies’s 2015 television drama Cucumber puts it, “everywhere’s a gay bar now.” (Such optimism isn’t always supported by the facts: a straight friend of mine recently had “cocksucker” spat at him in Balham, apparently for no other reason than that he was wearing rainbow-coloured shoelaces.) Others point out that even when it comes to London’s nightlife the outlook isn’t altogether bleak. A gradual drift of gay customers eastwards has led to new venues opening up, such as the café/bar Dalston Superstore and super-pub The Glory, while vigorous local action has led to landmark sites such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and Bloomsbury bookshop Gay’s the Word being snatched out of the hands of developers.
Yet the fact remains that what was once a highly visible part of London is in danger of slipping back into the shadows. Even where the rainbow flag still flutters proudly it is starting to look a little frayed around the edges.
“Yet the central character of Ackroyd’s book remains London itself, a place that encourages sudden intimacies with strangers”
In this context, the publication of Ackroyd’s Queer City offers a timely reminder that gay lives have always been tightly woven into London’s rich social brocade. Beginning with the presence of male prostitutes in the Roman city, who paid taxes and had their own public holiday, it moves on to the gloomy moral climate promoted by Christianity, culminating in the 1533 Buggery Act, which made anal intercourse a capital offence. That didn’t stop concerned citizens from worrying that London was becoming a modern Sodom-on-Thames, and Ackroyd rapidly moves through some key later developments: the rollicking pleasures of 18th-century “molly houses”; the emergence of unofficial gay venues in the 20th century such as the Biograph cinema near Victoria Station, popularly known as the Bio-Grope by those who frequented its stained and creaking seats; the impact of the Aids crisis and Clause 28.
Ackroyd is a novelist as well as the author of London: the Biography, but the events he describes don’t really cohere into a story. That’s because a city works more like an encyclopaedia than it does a novel: it is a potentially endless series of characters and narrative fragments that stubbornly refuse to add up to a plot. For this reason, he is probably wise to avoid an argument that goes beyond the loose framework set out by his subtitle. What he offers instead is a seemingly bottomless bag of strange-but-true anecdotes, such as “Clarkson’s Cottage,” a public toilet popular with gay men, being purchased after the Second World War “by a rich American who erected it, in memory of happy days, within the grounds of his New York estate,” or the fact that one “standard overture” of male and female prostitutes to a likely client used to be “Are you good-natured, sir?”
This interest in forms of address is typical of the book as a whole, which reveals Ackroyd’s keen awareness of the fact that “The love that dares not speak its name has never stopped talking,” any more than other Londoners have been able to stop talking about it. Put simply, there has always been a swirl of gossip and innuendo surrounding the capital’s “mollies,” “indorsers” (from the boxing slang for pummelling an opponent’s back), and “tribades,” even if the language sometimes moved too fast for everyone to keep up. “Camp” was a word so new to one Victorian reporter that he interpreted it as a reference to crayfish.
Unlike the authors of similarly or even identically titled books—such as another Queer City that was published earlier this year by the National Trust and the National Archives to celebrate the recreation of pioneering 1930s gay venue the Caravan Club—Ackroyd doesn’t restrict himself to a single location. Instead he zigzags across the city like a supercharged flâneur. In one chapter he explores the Elizabethan Whitefriars Theatre, which specialised in plays dealing in bawdy homoerotic humour, and was close to two brothels known respectively as Sodom and Little Sodom. Later he watches “a bugger aged 60” (according to the 18th-century Public Advertiser) being placed in the Cheapside pillory, where the mob pelts him with dung and whips him until he loses consciousness. Then he is outside the anonymous green door of Gateways, a club popular with lesbians in the 1960s and 1970s, discreetly situated on the corner of Bramerton Street and the King’s Road.
What brings some coherence to Ackroyd’s writing isn’t just his own presence as a knowledgeable and slyly witty guide. There is also an intriguing network of internal echoes, as different lives come to be played out in similar ways. Naturally everyone who lives in a place like London has a slightly different map of it in their heads; as they move across the city they create patterns that are as unique as the whorls of a fingerprint. Yet many of the lives retrieved by Ackroyd fall into similar grooves. They involve visiting the same pubs and even developing the same taste for tattoos: as early as the Roman occupation these were thought to be “suspect.” The young men who were working in fashionable clothing shops in Ludgate Hill in 1709, where they were “well known for effeminacy,” still seemed to be doing much the same job in 1857, when the Times called attention to “the mincing and bowing” of drapers’ assistants. (It is only a short step from here to Mr Humphries in the 1970s television sitcom Are You Being Served?) It is as if the gay community was bound together by invisible ties that stretched across time as well as space.
On page after page, previously obscure lives are brought blinking into the spotlight. They include a medieval male prostitute who told officials that “he had enjoyed intimacy with innumerable priests” and “really could not remember all their names,” and James “Nursery” Nokes, the target of a Restoration satire in which London’s apprentices were advised to “Secure your gentle bums/For full of lust and fury see he comes!” There are further victims of the pillory such as Thomas Doulton, who was sentenced for trying “to discover the ‘windward passage’ upon one Joseph Yates,” and more elusive characters such as John Cowper, “aka the Princess Seraphina,” who was said to wear a scarlet cloak and take “great delight in balls and masquerades.” Closer to the present, there are the Victorian cross-dressing duo of Stella and Fanny, who were thrown out of the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square for making “chirruping” sounds to attract other men, and the actor Alan Horton, who was imprisoned in 1912 for walking into a urinal “with a wiggle.”
“The undercurrents of gay life briefly make themselves visible before disappearing under the surface, like one of the city’s hidden streams”
Yet the central character of Ackroyd’s book remains London itself, a place that encourages sudden intimacies with strangers—being squashed up against someone on the tube, or sharing the stale air of a lift—but slips away from any attempt to pin it down. Writing in his memorandum book in 1857, Dickens jotted down the outline of a story in which he would try to represent a great city in a new way, so as to produce “An odd unlikeness of itself.” But this has long been what distinguishes London from many other cities around the world. It is a queer place, and not just because it is home to such a diverse human population. It is also queer in the older sense of peculiar or eccentric: a city that is forever revealing new angles of itself and making us look again at everything we thought we knew.
This can be seen even in a piece of writing like Charles Harper’s hearty 1923 guide “Queer Things About London”—“queer” here meaning out of the way or delightfully odd—which describes Soho’s “curious French grocers” and “newspaper shops where strange foreign journals are for sale,” but also the churchyard of St Anne’s in Dean Street where “on the flat tombstones young gamesters find it convenient to play pitch-and-toss, secure from the observation of the police.” Once again the undercurrents of gay life briefly make themselves visible before disappearing under the surface, like one of the city’s many hidden streams. Once again a corner of London reveals an odd unlikeness of itself.
Back in Clone Zone, the teenager has decided to buy that pink top after all. As he is leaving the shop, he passes a man who swaggers in wearing an oversized Guinness hat. Two friends remain outside cheering him on. “I’m literally going to buy something,” he promises them, and picks up a tastefully wrapped bar of Cockolat (“8 inches of luxury milk chocolate”), handling it like explosives. But his friends are already bored and have carried on walking down the street. He lingers for a few seconds and turns to join them. Strangely he appears to be blushing.
Additional photo credits: Justin Tallis /AFP/Getty Images, National Archives