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
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 Today many are boarded up or have been replaced by sleek retail chains.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.”