OUT IN THE CITY
The mid 1980s was an intense time to come out. AIDS – Dont Die Of Ignorance was the slogan accompanied by eerily lit shots of gravestones on TV. Gay men out on the scene were enmeshed in a confusing, heavy mix of lust and fear, we were not necessarily so nice to each other as a result. I took risks sexually every time I found a man with whom I shared feelings of love. My first boyfriend back in London was 13 years older than me, a previously married guy with two young children in Newcastle (I even went to meet them once). We were soon having sex without condoms. Things turned nasty with him – he was very jealous, but I was new to gay life, and irrepressibly flirtatious and sexually curious. Our relationship ended in a fit of jealous rage, he painting graffiti all over my room above the Wood Green Wimpy burger cafe and I calling the police to get him thrown out. They would not intervene in our domestic fight of course, but their appearance was enough to make him leave.
That all happened in the first few months after my return to London from Bristol in 1987, and convinced me to stay single for a whole year, exploring, playing and generally catching up on the sex I felt I had missed out on during my frustrated teenage years. At the end of ’87 I started going out with an African-American model, who was trying illegally to get work in the UK. Keith was a tall, kind and gentle man with stunning looks and the biggest smile I had ever known. We met at the Bell, where the best looking men in the place were falling over themselves to get close to him. We travelled home on the same nightbus – to my great surprise he accepted my offer to come back to the flat (‘for a coffee’ as we used to say), and a delightful few months of ecstatic times began. At this time I began to go dancing at Heaven, London’s oldest and biggest gay nightclub that had opened in 1979, and Keith and I were often flying together there to the early house tracks that were making their way into the high energy, poppers soaked atmosphere of gay London. I guess at this point I discovered just how potent a mix love and lust were, getting high on the energy of the connection with this hot, beautiful man.
The love affair ended when Keith went back to New York. On his subsequent visits to London the spark between us did not reignite, and we remained friends though at a distance. In the 90s I would see him at clubs such as the Daisy Chain at the Fridge in Brixton, but the last time I saw him he appeared in the bar Comptons of Soho, looking thin and weak, telling me had had pneumonia. We knew what this meant, but did not have the words, or the courage, to talk about it. Perhaps I received my HIV infection via a strain straight from one of the American cities where it first hit hard.
Through Keith I discovered that I seemed to have a special ‘click’ with black guys. They had something in their personalities, and sexualities, that took me further, that gave me more joy, than being with most white fellas. They seemed more able to meet a person body and soul, less inclined to judge by superficialities. Soon after Keith had returned to New York I met a super cute, fit, slim, dreadlocked eastender in the corner of the dance floor at the Bell. We were soon dancing together every weekend in Heaven, physically and spiritually, having wild nights out and hot sex back at his place in Dalston. Bareback quickly became our norm. His firm black body drove me wild, and his broad smile and infectious laugh called me into love with him, though eventually it became clear we (both Aquarians) were more suited to be friends than partners.
By this time I had let go of ambitions to work in film, and early in 1989 became a full time, live-in barman at the Black Cap, an institution of gay life in Camden. There had been scandal at the pub – the brewery sacking all the old staff and management in one fell swoop and employing one of their rising stars, a confident young gay American, to take over. He filled the pub with new staff, few of us having any idea what life at the Black Cap would be like – bitchy, busy, very very boozy. The craziest times of the week were Sunday lunchtime, when the punters drank fast to get as many down their neck before 2pm closing, and Tuesday nights. The first Tuesday of the new regime took all the new staff by surprise – the pub filled up to the brim with loud, drunken queers screaming their heads off and waving their arms around to the theatricality of Regina Fong on stage. I soon became a firm fan of the eccentric and hilarious Regina, Zsarday and other drag regulars at the Cap, and felt myself to be part of a slightly twisted, raucous, on the edge, but passionate, diverse and emotionally rich queer community. However, I eventually lost my job at the Cap, through being a slut! The manager told me he and the other staff were not happy that I took men back to my room. The irony of being sacked from a gay pub for being sexual was not lost on me. I think I was happy to get out of the pub game. The hours were long and exhausting, and I had spent a long period of my time there feeling like I had the flu. This may have been my seroconversion illness, through which I battled on to serve drinks and get laid!
Leaving the bar I responded to a job advertisement for a Christmas Party Manager at a massive restaurant in Mayfair, Tiddy Dols. an atmospheric English Eating House situated in the basements of a block of seventeenth century houses in Shepherd Market. Despite the posh location, I soon discovered London’s sleazy sexual underbelly reached everywhere. Shepherd Market is a long time haunt of prostitutes, and despite the clean up campaigns of the 1970s a few girls, mostly older women, presumably survivors of the ‘old days’, still walked the streets. The restaurant presented itself to American tourists and high paying office parties as traditional Mayfair class, but was rather a ramshackle, chaotic affair, run mainly by graduate students on low paid ‘management training programmes’ and Australian or Kiwi waiting staff, paid next to nothing. I finally had a job that challenged me to use my intelligence in creative ways however, and was to spend the next few Christmas seasons running an increasingly successful period of office parties, vastly boosting the restaurant’s income, and eventually earning myself a year round position as the company accountant (unqualified, therefore more affordable to the struggling business than a real accountant).
At first the work was seasonal, so at the start of 1990 I was jobless again. My bonus from the Christmas job kept me going for a while and gave me a week on holiday in Gran Canaria. I went out to the island alone and stayed in a gay complex of a few rooms around a pool near the beach in Maspalomas. The sunshine and plentiful sex pleased me no end, and I think I had a different man in my bed every night, on the last night peaking when I hooked up with the cutest fit German blond lad I had been watching from a distance all week. My euphoric holiday led to a crash when back in London’s winter. I was now living in a tiny bedsit room in a house in Balham. The cottages of south London, and the woodland cruising ground on Clapham Common, were my new stomping grounds. The Two Brewers in Clapham, and the Market Tavern in Vauxhall my new nightspots. At first I found the shift to south London disturbing – on the gay scene there seemed to be a conformity to the clone image stereotype, and I missed the eccentricity and individuality, plus the music, of the north London alternative scene. However, I soon discovered that clones could really lose themselves in the dance, and several years of awesome acid-assisted party nights in the Market began. Highlight of the week at the Tavern was Sunday afternoon, when the place managed to get round licensing laws by serving food. As drug inspired dancing became more common people would be up on the tables letting rip. At 7pm the club would shut and a stream of queers would wander over to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for the evening, then those still standing could slip back to the Market for a late night round off to the weekend. Friday nights were special because they kept to the 1980s hi-energy music formula, bringing out the clones, though each month there were noticeably less of them.
Lonely one night after clubbing – clubs shut early at 2am – I decided to blow some money on an escort. The idea of prostitution intrigued me, and I assumed that if I was paying somebody he was going to give me a great time! Finding a hooker involved going through the ads in Capital Gay newspaper and phoning a local number from a phone box. Then somehow getting myself from Balham to Clapham Junction in the middle of the night, and finding the guy’s flat. The encounter was incredibly disappointing, a serious flop. The guy was neither sexy in my eyes nor skilled sexually. I paid for that? I came away thinking, and the next day decided to explore if my own sexual talents, and appetite, might be a way for me to make some money.
In an apartment living room in a back street of Earls Court a number of guys were being interviewed for positions at Todd Klein’s escort agency. I sat with them, utterly unsure whether I could fit in this environment. I could see there were plenty of boys fitter and more handsome than me applying for sex work, so I didn’t rate my chances of getting a position. But the interviewer liked me, saw my intelligence, and I ended up as a telephonist for a very bizarre operation.
Todd was a unique character, a middle class rent boy who had expanded into pimpery. From his basement flat in Earls Court Square he ran an operation that included one straight and several gay escort agencies. His massive desk, where I sat for each 12 hour shift either during the day or overnight, was covered in telephones, 2 lines at least coming into each phone. Every line had 2, 3 or more different escort or masseur advertisements linked to it, appearing in all the gay press including Gay Times. When the telephone rang my job was to answer and pretend to be whoever the potential client thought he was calling. Sometimes several phones would ring at once. Soon I would spot the guys who were just phoning up every escort in the book for a kick, and run out of voices to use with them. When a client wanted to meet I would give him the address of another apartment close by- our brothel, where several boys would be hanging out waiting for work. I called the coordinator at the flat to tell him who was coming and whom he thought he had spoken with. The coordinator would then choose which of the available escorts was most suitable to play that character. This often led to some humorous situations where clients turned up expecting to meet for example a huge well hung black stud, but were greeted by the nearest thing we could offer, maybe a small tanned Italian! We also sent boys out on jobs to see clients at their homes or hotels, and a fairly thriving trade went on.
At the escort agencey I was earning more money than I had done at the restaurant and suddenly had a new social set too – these boys had money to burn and there were new exciting club environments to burn it in. These were the trippy crazy spaces of the acid house era, pre rave, when the numbers involved were relatively small and the parties intimate, and quite insane. Shaking it all out, going a bit crazy, losing yourself in the music, lights and smoke, were what we went for. I took my first acid trip in Heaven on Gay Pride night in 1989. It was given to me by a well known Heaven character, Acid Bob. Through him I learnt that dancing on acid was not as recent a craze as I thought – gay men had been dropping and dancing in Heaven throughout the 1980s. I was keen to be initiated, but Acid Bob did not give me much in the way of guidance about what I was letting myself in for….
Bob gave me a chewing gum strip, concealed in the wrapping of which was an acid tab. I went into a bathroom cubicle, saw this tiny colourful piece of paper and merrily took the whole thing into my mouth, holding it under my tongue at first then chewing it, as instructed. I guess I lost it pretty quickly – I can remember the dancefloor suddenly sloping to an angle of 45 degrees and all the faces around me turning into pigs. I think all awareness of space, time and solid matter left me at that point and I was lost in a fast moving flashing sea of coloured lights and beats. At the first chance I got to say something coherent I insisted that Bob get me out of there – he was not keen to, but realised he would have me in his ‘care’ for the night and we went. I can remember people were still in a queue to get in to the club as we walked out, and as I relaxed in the taxi home I became elated by visions of fireworks filling the sky. Bob told me to quieten down and be discreet, and back at his did his best to ensure we both had a good time, with me slipping between surrender to the journey and moments of freak out. I left his the next morning and travelled across town feeling sparkly and somehow bigger. I felt I had been through a crucial initiation.
When I explored acid again I started with small doses, and discovered that half a tab was enough to keep me dancing until closing. I went to Future and Troll at Soundshaft, the intimate club attached to the back of Heaven. Here the crazy queer acid kids met and bathed in dayglo anarchy. I remember the atmosphere of those nights being so rich, and somehow knowing we were all in some kind of ‘madness’ state just made it so good. Late in the night the doorway through to the main club Heaven would be opened and we were let through to invade the main dance floor, joining the brigade of stomping moustachioed clones, showing them how we liked to jump all over the place, waving our arms in the air, we were indeed way beyond caring, we felt so free.
Acid became my weekly drug of choice for several years. The Market Tavern became my acid home. It was easy to buy in there, and the mix of traditional boozy cruisy blokey scene and tripping space cadets was heady, sweaty and wild. Clubs shut early of course, but it was relatively easy to pick up a companion for the night or to go on to a house party. I loved the glamorous idea of afterparties, but at the ones I went to found too much attitude and arrogance going around. All I really wanted after several hours of dance, senses alight through the acid, mind empty and receiving pictures, light and insight from the universe, was to get lost in sensation, in music and flesh. This did not seem the time of night to be posing and posturing! So I was more likely to go home, even if alone, where I found I could make intense love with myself, the drug making it possible for me to commune with parts of my being I didn’t normally access.
Ecstasy was of course hitting the scene big time as well, and for most was the drug of choice. The Fridge started to hold big gay parties, even on a Tuesday night we would turn out in numbers to dance to the incredible music played at the Daisy Chain. It was in the Fridge that I first experienced the phenomenal rush of coming up on really good E, feeling myself glued to the spot as energy rushed through me. Acid remained my favourite though, it stimulated my mind in ways I can hardly describe. While high on acid I felt as if I understood ‘everything’. I felt myself travelling in the universe and the universe travelling in me, explaining things to me, showing me how wonderful existence is. These feelings did not translate into philosophising or spiritual enquiry in my daily life, at this stage. They remained my secret pleasure that nobody else really knew anything about, my communion with … something… that I felt no need to give a name to.
The Spring and Summer of 1990 were a wild and hedonistic time, I worked hard at the agency and even became its manager for a while, when one of the key figures there started up some strange, paranoid behaviours, and the boss, Todd, disappeared off for spiritual replenishment. He had discovered Laurieston Hall, and attended retreats there run by the Edward Carpenter Community. A closed minded 25 year old, I found nothing of interest in his new fascination, but remember we held a ‘support circle’ one night, a venture to improve the well being of the escorts by bringing them together to talk about their emotions. This must have been my first time in a ‘heart circle’, which is a regular feature of my life now. Todd was a full on character, not always easy to get along with, and when I myself started going to ECC events 11 years later found his name was on the ‘banned’ list.
In August 1990 I took a month off to go around Europe on an Inter Rail ticket with a great friend, Tim Dutton, whom I had got to know while working at the Black Cap. We travelled through Germany to Austria and Hungary, checking out the sights and the gay scene wherever we stopped – Cologne, Nuremburg, Salzburg, Vienna. In Budapest we visited a country just opening to western ways, with its first gay club recently open, tucked away invisibly in a suburban street. We came back through Italy and the south of France before parting company for a while. I went on to Barcelona and Ibiza, spending a week in Ibiza town, loving days on the beach and nights out socialising and cruising in the bars and Anfora disco. As a music lover I was keen to also experience something of the big Ibiza nightclubs, but my one visit to Ku appalled me. There was little atmosphere, it was massively overpriced, and in the toilets I witnessed gangs of pilled up straight lads being noisily homophobic. I felt safer with the queers, even if the music was sometimes a bit too cheesy for my liking!
Somewhere there in Ibiza I hit a low of loneliness and confusion about my life. I remember walking along the beach on a downer, wandering aimlessly and feeling weak. Suddenly I felt the presence of my soul, and I knew something. I knew I was HIV+. I just saw it, clear and certain. I knew I had to return to London and face facts. On the way I met up with Tim again in Paris, and we finished our journey in Amsterdam – visiting bars and saunas in these cities confirmed the feeling of soul loneliness in me, and convinced me my life had to change.
Todd was not pleased when I quit my agency post on my return, but I knew I could not stand the pace of that life any more. Tiddy Dols was holding the door open for me to return and run the next Christmas season. HIV tests on the National Health Service took some weeks to obtain a result at this point, so I decided to go to a private clinic and pay for a same day result. When the counsellor came back to me with the result she was distraught. I was the first person she had ever had to give a positive diagnosis to. She was in tears, but I was calm. I knew it was coming. She was not happy to let me leave the clinic alone, but I promised her I would go straight to see a friend, so I travelled across the city to Battersea and broke the news to Tim.
Telling people about the diagnosis was hard, mainly because of their reaction. I was not inclined to cry or shout about it, but other people were. Somehow I took it in my stride, I signed up at the Kobler Centre of the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, met Dr Giles, who, based on my t-cell count, informed me I had probably seven years to live. I carried on working at the restaurant for two more years, spending one summer season back in Earls Court but this time working behind the bar at the Coleherne pub, the infamous leatherman hangout, then worked for Interpack Worldwide, a baggage handling agency run by lively and lovely Australians. Increasingly I needed to take periods off work, mainly as unexpressed emotion in me about my health situation manifested as bouts of depression. Eventually I came out at work as positive, and in January 1995 decided to quit, five years into my seven years, hoping to have some quality of life enjoyment before sickness really took hold.
I was also very much in love, and wanted to spend time with the beautiful Frenchman who had come into my life, Pierre. We met in Comptons of Soho on the weekend of the first ever Soho Pink Weekend in 1993. We were not an obvious match – I was there in black rubber shorts, doc marten boots and a green rubber jacket, while he was a bank executive, a charming, pretty boy, smartly dressed and shy. But within an hour or two I had persuaded him to drop acid with me, and we spent the evening dancing and snogging around Soho – at Cruze, a short lived but very sexy venue on St Martins Lane, and SubStation in Falconburg Court, a key spot in gay Soho history. That seedy cellar had been home to Stallions Club in the 80s, complete with aquariums and crowded with queens for the Sunday afternoon tea dance. Its last incarnation was as the Ghetto, before closing as part of the redevelopment of the area.
Pierre lived in Paris, and was visiting London with his best friend Yann, who hooked up with my mate Glenn, another friendship formed at the Black Cap. After an exciting summer of trips to Paris, and Pierre and Yann to London, the French boys made their way to live in the UK, and for a while the four of us lived in a chaotic flatshare in Clapham. By ’95 when I retired from employment Pierre and I had moved into a second floor flat in the Oval with a curved outer wall, looking out through huge windows at a massive church, a tree filled churchyard and tall redbrick former children’s hospital building that looked like a castle. These big windows let in tons of light, and it was to be in this enchanted setting that my life was to undergo its huge shift, as I left behind the demands of a job and opened my mind to the questions of life, love and spirit.