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 THE PINK PAST
THE GAY SCENE IN THE PAST 40 YEARS OR SO
By Tony Papard
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THE GAY SCENE IN THE PAST 40 YEARS OR SO
By Tony Papard

Although I knew I was gay from the age of 13 in 1958 when I was living in North London, I was very naive and totally unaware that there was a 'gay scene' underground and very secret) until 1967 at the ripe old age of 22. It was OK for gays 'in the know' but for those of us who didn't know about the scene it was almost impossible to discover it, and even if we did, to gain access. 

Basically to gain entry to any gay clubs, which were all illegal remember before 1967, you had to know someone who was already a member and be recommended. In order to know anyone who was gay you probably would have needed to encounter them sexually in a cottage or cruising ground. In my naivity I was unaware cruising grounds existed - I once heard of one via the local Press, a woods in Hertfordshire where I was living at that time aged 16. I cycled over there, briskly walked thru the woods in broad daylight wheeling my cycle, and not seeing anyone around decided the Press report about 'Queers In The Woods' was pure fiction. It never occurred to me to go in the evening, or to stroll thru slowly, hanging around. Also I dressed completely wrong - in sports jacket, tie, flannel trousers with a short back and sides haircut that resembled Adolf Hitler's. As to cottages, my mother brainwashed me and my brother never to use public conveniences or talk to strange men, and I obeyed all these rules. So my chances of coming into contact with another gay man sexually were zilch. I probably met many I didn't know were gay, and they wouldn't have recognized me as gay. One was a work colleague, and I'll describe this later.

The publicity surrounding the change in the law under the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was considerable, and the London 'Evening Standard' published a series of articles on homosexuality, with descriptions of how gay men met each other in various locations around the capital. I read all this with avid interest and growing frustration, for all the locations were described in tantalizing detail but were not identified. I read of a cinema 'where you cannot see the film for men getting up and leaving in pairs' and of a wood in North London popular with less attractive gay men because it was dark, and I felt more miserable and isolated than ever. Here was I at 22, still a virgin and, as far as I knew, I had never even met another gay man, yet all around me other gay men were apparently having a whale of a time because they knew about the secret places this newspaper reporter had somehow sought out. I had no way of knowing the cinema was the Biograph in Victoria or the wood was located on Hampstead Heath and visited by gay men at night.

I only eventually discovered the gay scene by plucking up courage to buy an American gay magazine off a street stall near Euston station and sending away to Los Angeles for a gay guide of London. Even then it was impossible to get into the gay clubs because I didn't know anyone to vouch for me. 

By the way, the Act only legalized male homosexuality (lesbianism was never illegal) in very restricted circumstances. You both had to be over 21, not in the armed forces, and to have somehow found yourself in a self-contained hotel room, house or apartment with nobody else present anywhere else in the room, house or apartment. This effectively meant the only gays legalized were those already in a steady relationship or cohabiting. Every possible way of meeting was likely to fall foul of the law on 'importuning for an immoral purpose', and pretty police in plainclothes made many easy arrests for this in the decades after the 1967 Act was passed.

Even approaching a gay man in a gay bar, offering to buy him a drink and then inviting him home was legally 'importuning for an immoral purpose' so if the guy turned out to be a policeman, you could be arrested. Of course most arrests took place in cottages or cruising grounds. There were few backroom type clubs or gay saunas since these contravened the strict definition of 'privacy' under the 1967 Act. The few which opened in London were quickly closed down by the police. 

Some of the ones which opened and closed during the period after the 1967 Act but before backroom clubs were legalized in the early 21st Century were the King Sauna chain (one in Notting Hill), the Gigolo in Kings Road, the Subway in Leicester Square and various sleazy basement porno cinemas in Soho and Charlie Brown's cinema in Camden High Street. None lasted very long. Not until the 1990s did police start turning a blind eye to the first backroom clubs of that decade like the LA - London Apprentice.

One place which was always ignored by the police was the Biograph cinema in Wilton Road, Victoria, and it was there I met my first live-in boyfriend Danny, and my life-partner of 21 years (till he died in 1991) George. The Biograph vied with the Electric cinema in Portobello Road for the title of Britain's oldest cinema. A plaque outside claimed the Biograph opened in 1905, but actually it was 1909, and was a meeting place for gay men for many decades till it was suddenly demolished without warning in the early 1980s. Sunday afternoons it would be packed out, and you would see a long line of men queuing outside before it opened. The innocent passer-by must have often wondered why two mediocre old films were so popular.

There used to be continuous shows consisting of two films with short intervals in between. There were no adverts, cartoons, trailers, shorts or newsreels. When it closed, a lot of people found their whole lives disrupted, with nowhere to go on Sunday afternoons, and the main London ‘social club’ for meeting other gay men gone. The things that went on in the dark rows of shaking seats were quite outrageous, but nobody minded, except perhaps the woman who walked out one day with white stuff all over her hat which wasn’t dropped by a passing pigeon, according to George, who saw how it got there from the row behind where she was sitting quite oblivious to what was going on around her. The staff all knew, from Flo in the Box Office to Tubby who sold ice-creams between films and shouted out: 'Half-time, change partners', or even more boldly: 'Half-time, change hands'. Basically it was mutual masturbation in the darkened rows of seats on the left which happened there, but of course there were trips to the cottage, constant changing of seats, and you could meet guys there and after the initial groping/masturbation go home with them. 

Even the police knew what went on there, and turned a blind eye. They have been known to tell gay men caught in the act in Victoria Station toilets to 'go down the road to the Biograph if you want to do that sort of thing'. 

The gay bars I did find were very disappointing. Quite often only one bar was gay, often upstairs, and I inevitably went to the wrong bar. I also went at the wrong time – far too early in the evening, or even at lunchtime. I was also dressed completely wrong, and any gay person would have assumed a ‘straight’ person had walked into the bar by mistake. You also have to be able to make eye contact and recognize body language, which I've never been able to do. Nor do I find it easy to make conversation with strangers in gay bars - I find it much easier in straight bars. 

I found out by accident that a guy I'd been working with in the office was gay, and had been picking up guys right under my nose. He was so obvious if I'd had any gaydar then I'd have recognized he was gay. Once he knew I was gay and was relying on the Biograph and contact ads in the new gay press he took pity on me, and accompanied me to The Champion gay bar in Bayswater. Next day at the office he said to me: 'You haven't got a clue have you? Not a bloody clue!' 

I asked him what he meant, and he spelt it out for me: 'You looked like a straight who'd wandered in by mistake. You were dressed all wrong - you had a heavy overcoat on for a start. Gay men want to see your shape.' Added to all this I couldn't make conversation or eye contact with strangers, and still can't. If a stranger makes eye contact with me a reflex action causes me to look away immediately, and I still can't control this. My colleague gave up on me, and I've very rarely met anyone in a gay bar since that day over 43 years ago. I just can't do it - I can only make contact in backroom, gay sauna, cruising ground or cottage situations where a direct grope is the initial contact. Perhaps because this was how initial contacts were made in the Biograph, I never learnt any other way. 

In 1968, a year after I discovered the gay scene in London, I visited the GDR (East Germany) with a peace and trade union delegation invited by Friedensrat der DDR (Peace Council of the German Democratic Republic).  I was very impressed with everything I saw in the GDR, not least its extremely open and liberated gay scene at that time (homosexuality had been made legal in the GDR that year). It was so open, even straight members of our delegation noticed it and remarked on it. Gay men were coming out of the G bar (pronounced 'gay bar') in East Berlin's Friedrichstrasse holding hands and presenting straight passers-by with flowers. 

I met someone in the outrageous packed and groping Mocca gay coffee bar near the ‘G’ Bar pub, and as we walked hand-in-hand down Friedrichstrasse without anyone blinking an eyelid, he stopped a woman in the street and asked her to translate for him: 'Your friend wants to know if it’s OK for him to come back and spend the night with you in your hotel,' she said, quite unembarrassed. I replied: 'Yes,' and so had a very pleasant night. In London at the time I could have been arrested for walking down the street hand-in-hand with another man, and certainly for what went on in the Mocca coffee bar in Friedrichstrasse. The charge would have been 'public indecency' or something similar. 

In 1970 I met George in the Biograph, and in early 1971 he moved in with me. I had left home in 1968, and moved in with Danny my first live-in partner in Camden Town. This lasted about a year, then my mother moved back to London from Hertfordshire, and I moved in with her. In early 1971 she was in Hertfordshire tending to my grandparents who died within a month of each other that Spring. It was during this period George moved in, with my mother's approval. However later she seemed to regret this decision, and when she moved back into the flat there were constant tensions. 

We were, of course, breaking the law because George and I were sleeping together, but my mother was sleeping in another bedroom in the flat. This broke the 1967 Sexual Offences Act definition of 'privacy'. My mother was afraid of losing her council tenancy, so made out George was my brother. Then she found his drag, which he used when going to Jean Frederick's famous Drag Balls at Porchester Hall. In the end the tensions got too much, and we moved out into a flat of our own. 

Round about this time in the early 1970s we started making a regular date of Sunday lunchtimes at 'The Black Cap' pub in Camden Town. A drag artist named Marc Fleming, or 'Auntie Flo', used to appear there, and sometimes he was joined by Mrs Shufflewick, another female impersonator who had been quite famous on the radio. Marc was not everyone’s cup of tea, but we loved him. He was in his fifties and amply built, and used to play to a packed bar every week. He had an acid tongue, but it was all part of his act. His fans came along just to be insulted. 

Coachloads of foreign tourists would be brought to the pub, and Marc used to joke that the couriers charged them a fee to see 'an old English poofter on stage.' It was probably true. 

The things Marc said on stage were often unrepeatable, which is probably why he never got a wider TV audience and became famous like Lily Savage. He could never have done his act on TV in those days. As it was he often got kicked out of pantomime for going too far, or swearing on stage in front of the kids. He not only insulted his audience, but politicians and the Royal Family, at a time when the latter were very rarely criticized or lampooned. If anyone was foolish enough to heckle Marc, they got more than they bargained for. A woman heckling him was like a red rag to a bull. Quick as a flash came the retort: 

'Shut up you fucking, bucket-mouthed, hairy-arsed lesbian. When I say "shit" jump on the shovel.' 

Hardly a politically correct jibe nowadays, and even then some people felt very uncomfortable. Marc always managed to be topical, and one week Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, had been visiting West Germany and was featured on TV news with Chancellor Willy Brandt. Marc’s quip about her going to Germany to pay the gas bill shocked many in the audience, who may not have appreciated the deeply satirical nature of this remark. Marc was himself Jewish, and the joke probably reflected his disapproval of Israel becoming so friendly with Germany. 

The Royal Family came in for regular mockery: 'Princess Anne – the horse dressed up as a woman', 'Prince Charles – the next Queen of England', the Queen Mother  'clad in black motorcycle leathers and a crash helmet with a bunch of wax cherries attached doing a ton up the High Street on her motorbike, smashing all the red traffic lights with a hammer' as she went ' a terror for a woman of 76? were typical Marc Fleming caricatures. Everything 'Spitting Image' later did, Marc had pioneered years before. 

We took two gay friends to see Marc one week, and Neil who was very conservative in every way was not at all amused at the lampooning of the Queen and her family, which was just beyond the pale as far as he was concerned.

His partner, Rose, loved Marc, despite being sent up. Rose is a very big man, of similar proportions to the late Marc Fleming himself, and on one particular occasion was wearing a scarlet jumper, check trousers and his usual spectacles. We deliberately took him up the side alley, through the Gents' toilet so we would emerge near the front of the stage. We pushed him forward, and of course as soon as Marc Fleming spotted our friend he stopped dead in his tracks, pointed to Rose and said 'I see Billy Bunter’s arrived.'

Typical quips of Marc included: 'That’s a nice dress, love. Did you get tired of the curtains?' 'Do they still do hairstyles like that in Peckham? It doesn’t suit you, dear – you should have it combed forward over your face.' 'There’s two men with beards down there. I like beards, but they bring my arse out in a rash. Why don’t you get together, do a 69 and get lockjaw?' 'That frock suits you. I do so admire a woman who can wear black. Been dead long?' 'Is that your wife next to you or just the weekend joint?' The punchline for anyone who looked hurt or embarrassed was: 'I'm only joking dear, same as God was with your mother'. 

The Almighty regularly came under mild attack: 'Isn’t she camp, that God, sitting up there on a cloud all day….' There was a dog on the premises owned by the manager or one of the staff, and it too became a butt of Marc's jokes: 'It’s all wrong you know, that big butch dog sitting out in the alley tethered up with a string of pearls.'

You either loved Marc, or you hated him. His double act with Mrs Shufflewick was also popular, though Shuff liked her drink and often forgot her lines. Marc would then say: ‘That’s another gag you’ve fucked up for me.’ But he was really very protective of Shuff, and off-stage was a very nice person. He had a boyfriend, Joe, who was very quiet and shy, but who was sometimes persuaded to sing a few numbers. He specialized in Al Jolson songs (without the black make-up), and he had a wonderful voice very like Al’s. They were not dissimilar in looks also (Joe, like Al, was white).

Marc and Joe were often invited back to lunch or dinner by members of the audience, who knew they would be sent up the following week. 'I went back with that queen in the corner last week' Marc would say, pointing out some squirming figure trying to hide behind someone else. ‘ "Come for Sunday lunch", she said to me last week. Sunday lunch? A tin of fucking Spam, dear.' 

We loved our Sundays at 'the Cap;. We sometimes saw my gay cousin in there as he was also a great fan, and once his two straight sisters were with him enjoying the show. Then one day we read in the gay press that Marc had died, I believe of cancer. I heard decades later that he actually collapsed and died in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, so maybe it was a heart attack. Anyway it was a terrible shock and a very sad day for us, and all Marc's fans. 

George and his friends all used a strange language which I knew nothing about, except vaguely remembering it and not understanding it from Jules and Sandy on the radio. It was, of course, the polari gay slang, a mixture of Italian, backslang and theatrical slang. It was dying out in the 1960s, but George and his friends continued to use it, and some words like 'cod' and 'naff' have now come into general usage, while most others have fallen into disuse. ('naff' originally stood for 'not available for fucking' I believe - as in 'he's naff' meaning a straight had walked into a gay venue.) 'Vada the cod bats on the polone', 'Bona eek, nanty carts', and 'Nishta polari, sharpie polone' were some of the useful phrases you wouldn't want generally understood. (Translations:'Look at the horrible shoes that woman's wearing', 'Nice face but small cock', 'Shut up there's a policewoman earwigging'. Or a very useful phrase when with a rich sugar-daddy: 'I've got nanty metzers'- 'I'm broke'.

I came late on the scene at 22, George had been on it since about the age of 12 in Glasgow, coming to London when he was 16 I believe. But in those days with no gay press or Internet, if you didn't frequent public conveniences or like George have a stepbrother or someone else to introduce you to gay sex, then how on Earth were you to know about, discover or gain admission to the secret, underground gay scene? 

George and his friends who were part of this prior to the 1967 Act said this legislation led not to liberation, but to a massive police clampdown. When it was all underground and secret, and only the initiated few knew about it, apparently all sorts of things went on in the gay clubs. Once it became partly legalized, however, any sex on the premises would cause a police raid and probably closure. Even cottages became the subject of more police raids following the Act. It was not until the early 21st Century that Britain's gay laws were brought into line with most other Western countries, and gay backrooms, saunas and other safe spaces for gay men became legalized. I hope I helped to achieve this with an article arguing for it in HIM magazine in 1991, and also with contributions I made to the public debate just before the legislation was passed.

Before this legislation gay men had to use cruising grounds, cottages and other public places, or else go home with strangers picked up in bars and clubs, all of which could be very dangerous. There were many queerbashings and gay murders. Now with backrooms and gay saunas we in UK, like the rest of the civilized world, have safe spaces for gay men to have sex. At least for those like myself without regular partners, and those with partners but who want an open relationship. 

In the latter decades of the 20th Century gay men had to travel to Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, etc. to find backroom-type clubs. My partner and I visited all these and more, and couldn't understand why UK was so far behind. A guy I met in a Sydney club in 1990 summed up what the rest of the world thought: 'Well it's because you're still in the Victorian age.' It was true. Only EU legislation demanding an end to discrimination on any grounds led to full gay liberation, including civil partnerships, in the early 21st Century. Nanny State Britain would otherwise no doubt have happily continued with the old 19th century attitudes which continued to criminalize the way gay men met and had sex. 

(I've written an on-line biography/autobiography of myself and George, which can be found at this page on my blog: http://www.tonypapard.info/?page_id=1785 

Parts dealing with various aspects of the rent boy/gay scene in the 1950s/60s include the latter part of Chapter 4 (Glasgow gay scene), Chapter 5 (The Swinging Sixties In London), Chapter 7 (George In Paris), and the middle of Chapter 10 (Ingelow Road) immediately before the poem 'Them Days' which is easily found by scrolling down. This briefly describes the London gay scene before the Second World War as told by Freddy Williams aka The Fabulous Freda.)

Copyright Tony Papaard 2010


Stradivarius would be pleased to have information about gay life in the nineteenth century in the form of articles or books.( We doubt if there are any living witnesses, even in the Quebec !) Contact us using the E:Mail link below
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Our Pink History 
A series of articles about our past (Other pages in this section)
.
London in the eighties
A trip around some long gone venues

The Seventies
Three years on and things start to move

1967 and all that
The law changes but attitudes don't

Drag Queens
.

Tarzan
Only a loin cloth covered his working parts

Between the wars and after
Now you see it, now you don't

Hankie Pankie
The coloured hankie craze.

Pin Ups
Pictures from the past

 

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