Have you ever had one of those life experiences that renders you utterly speechless? Read on and let me know if anything I’m about to tell you leaves you as astonished as it did when it happened to me.
Picture it – Earl’s Court, London, 1988, the height of the summer, and me working as a part-time barman in one of the coolest gay bars in the city.
In the bar, the biggest catch in town. And it seemed he had his eyes on me. He’d been showing some interest in me for weeks, or so I thought.
Sometimes, when I caught him looking at me, I’d blush so much that my face resembled a sun-dried tomato. At the same time, my heart would skip a few beats while the butterflies in my stomach felt like they were rioting.
Neville, my best friend, made a bet with me that if ‘catch’ (as we’d nicknamed him) asked me out on a date, he’d do all my washing for the rest of the year. How could I decline a bet like that?
At six-foot-tall, mid-thirties, with a stocky build, short dark hair, moustache, piercing brown eyes, and always wearing the tightest of Levi 501 jeans, it wasn’t my washing that needed a cold wash. It was me!
He was what I called a ‘man’s man’, and nobody would have ever guessed that he was gay had they seen him walking down the street or standing on the terraces at Stamford Bridge.
Nobody knew much about him. Not even his name.
He always stood on his own, and nobody ever approached him. He ordered one drink that lasted the whole evening and always left the bar on his own.
I didn’t want to make the first move. I hated rejection, but the prospect of having my washing done for the rest of the year was tempting.
The other barmen had noticed that ‘Catch’ was giving me a little too much attention. Make the first move, they told me, but I couldn’t.
Then, in the early hours of an unusually warm and humid Sunday morning, having just finished my shift, I left the bar and started to make the short trip home.
“Hi” came a deep voice from behind me. “I’ve been watching you for weeks and wondered if you fancied coming back to my place for a coffee?”
As I span around, the butterflies in my stomach rioted again as my eyes were met by ‘Catch’ smiling at me. For some reason, it took what seemed like ages for me to accept his invitation.
Jumping into a taxi with him, I felt as if I was floating on cloud nine. We sat silent like two lovebirds, just looking into each others eyes.
As soon we reached his apartment, I’d hardly given ‘Catch’ time to close the front door before grabbing him and forcing him to do some tongue dancing with me.
What happened after the tongue dancing didn’t seem to last long, but neither of us seemed to care very much. There was still time for rounds two, three and four.
I had the feeling that he was the one and that we’d be doing lots more of what had just happened, only at a much slower pace.
“Would you like a beer, Peachy?” were his first words to me since we got to his apartment. Peachy? Was he talking to me? Well, that’s another story, but the cold beers helped cool us down while we continued to look into each others eyes.
After rounds two and three, we were both exhausted, and he asked if I wanted to stay the rest of the night.
As much as I wanted to stay, I had to get home because I couldn’t wait to see Neville and tell him what had happened.
While quickly freshening myself up, ‘Catch’ made us some coffee.
Grabbing my clothes and walking to the kitchen (because I didn’t want to miss another second of being with him), I realised I still didn’t know ‘Catch’s’ real name. Should I ask, or should I wait until he asked me for mine? After all, he couldn’t know me as ‘Peachy’ when we went on our first proper date.
Having convinced myself that it wasn’t me doing the chasing in this relationship, I decided to wait until he introduced himself to me.
While the coffee went cold, our tongues had another long dance.
“Would you like to make this a regular thing?” ‘Catch’ asked me, as he came up for some air.
I had a fleeting vision of Neville doing my washing, so didn’t take long to respond.
“What? You bet!”
“Good, I was hoping you’d say that.”
After a little more tongue dancing, it was time for us to part and ‘Catch’ escorted me to the front door.
However, suddenly stoping, ‘Catch’ told me to wait, and off he wandered (while muttering something about having forgotten something). I watched as the man of my dreams disappeared back into the bedroom. Surly not round five, I thought.
With my heart playing the drums in my chest, I was positive I could feel those first dewdrops of love welling up inside of me. He was probably writing down his phone number for me.
Then it all started to go wrong. Very wrong!
I couldn’t take my eyes off ‘Catch’ as he walked towards me. “Here you go,” he said, thrusting a wad of ten-pound notes into my hand. “You forgot to ask for your fee. I’ve deducted a little for the beer and coffee you had.”
Shocked, my jaw hit the floor, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless; completely speechless! And, before you ask, no, not because he’d made a deduction for beer and coffee.
‘Catch’ had mistaken me for a rent-boy.
Still openmouthed and unable to speak, I walked out, turned around and, as ‘Catch’ closed the front door, heard him say he’d recommend me to anyone looking for the same kind of fun.
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“They all have moustaches, wear 501s and are called Clones.”
Those were my words to my best friend, Neville, upon my first visit to Earl’s Court, London, back in the mid-1980s.
I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Just about every man in the place had a moustache, and I was big into facial hair.
Back then, there were five gay bars in Earl’s Court. It was the centre of the universe for any gay man visiting London.
It was easy to get to Earl’s Court, via public transport, and I always felt safe there. It was as if the district had a safety bubble around it.
No surprise then that I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Earl’s Court shortly after arriving to live in London in 1986.
The most famous gay bar in Earl’s Court was called ‘The Coleherne.’ These days, it’s a trendy restaurant come wine bar which I believe serves some smashing food.
I spent lots of time in ‘The Coleherne.’ At the time, pubs had to close their doors between 3 and 5:30pm (2 and 7pm on a Sunday). ‘The Coleherne’ was always packed out during the final hour of drinking time.
It had a jukebox in the corner that played all the latest hits as well as many ‘Hi-NRG’ (Pronounced High Energy) tunes which was a new type of music adopted by many gay men.
Neville was into the same types of men who drunk in “The Coleherne’ as me. So you’d often find us in there.
There was a strict rule about going into ‘The Coleherne.’ Those wearing leather, such as a bikers’ jacket, waistcoat, or chaps, had their own side-door entrance.
Everybody else had to use the other door on the main street. If you went through what Neville and I called ‘the leather door’ you’d end up on the leather side of the bar.
The leather guys would glare at you if your attire included no leather, and they would continue to glare at you until you made your way to the non-leather side of the bar.
Scary stuff for first-time visitors or anybody who entered the pub by mistake.
What made Neville and me laugh was that some of the leather guys often arrived carrying a motorcycle helmet under their arm. You may ask, ‘what’s so funny about that?’
Well, they’d place the motorcycle helmet on the top shelf above the bar, order their drink, and then stand around looking as butch as possible.
Then, at closing time, Neville and I would watch as they made their way to the bus-stop, with motorcycle helmets under their arms. For some, carrying a motorcycle helmet seemed to be the must-have, new fashion accessory when dressed in leather.
Although ‘The Coleherne’ was probably the most shabby of all the five gay bars in Earl’s Court, it was always busy.
Just down the road, at one end of the street, was ‘The Boltons.’ This was a strict ‘no-no’ bar for Neville and I because it was known for its rent boys.
At the other end of the street was ‘Bromptons’ bar. This was the place Neville and me nicknamed ‘Clone City’ because just about every man who entered had facial hair.
‘Bromptons’ opened at 10pm and closed at 2am. On a Sunday, it opened earlier but closed at midnight. It was a 30-second walk from where I lived, so it was very convenient.
Friendlier than ‘The Coleherne,’ for those who’d never visited before, ‘Bromptons’ had a small dance floor and a kiosk that sold all the latest Hi-NRG 12-inch vinyl singles.
In those days, gay men only purchased 12-inch vinyl singles, unlike most of the rest of the population that bought the 7-inch vinyl version.
There was the odd splattering of leather amongst the crowd, but most were dressed in check shirts, 501 Jeans and Doc-Marten boots.
Just about everyone ordered and drunk bottles of lager, rather than pints. If you arrived early, you could compare your check shirts and see if any of them clashed severely with the chequered carpet and wallpaper of the bar.
Arriving early also meant free entry into the bar. After 11pm there was a small entry fee charged, so many would flock in at 22:55.
The Barmen at ‘Bromptons’ were often hand-picked by the owner. “Have good looking bar staff, and you’ll pack the place out every night,” he once told me. And he was right!
The place was a magnet for clones who seemed to need little sleep despite having full-time jobs, many of which required an early morning start.
The other two bars at the opposite end of Earl’s Court were located next door to each other.
One was a bar called ‘Harpoon Louis,’ which hosted cabaret most nights.
The likes of Lily Savage (aka Paul O’Grady) started out here, and it was always a great place to go for a laugh.
‘Cruising’, as Gay men called it (better known as looking for a partner for the night), did go on. In contrast, in the other bars, cruising was very serious, and you dare not laugh when trying to pick up your date for the night. In ‘Harpoon Louis,’ it didn’t seem to matter as much.
‘Copacabana’ was next door to Harpoon Louis and was the main gay nightclub of the area. It was convenient to fall into when coming out of ‘Harpoon Louis.’
‘Copacabana’ (also known as ‘Copa’s’) was the biggest of all the bars in Earl’s Court and had a large dance floor. It was the place to hear the latest Hi-NRG tunes, dance, drink and check out the men.
Some famous faces often frequented the place, but being ‘gay men,’ the clientele often dare not approach them.
During the 1980s, gay men adopted a ‘hanky’ code. You’d place a particular coloured handkerchief in either the left or right back pocket of your 501 jeans. This told other gay men what kind of sexual fun you were into.
Rather than the ‘hanky’ code, Neville and I adopted the ‘teddy bear’ code. This involved the placing of a small teddy bear in the back pocket. This told others if you enjoyed giving or receiving cuddles.
Today, Earl’s Court is no longer the centre of the universe for gay men. Its crown was lost to Soho and Vauxhall during the late 1990s, although the gay scene in London now seems to be more spread out.
Had we arrived for the first time today, Neville and I would not have liked Earls Court as much. However, it holds lots of happy memories not just for us, but for many from the LGBT crowd.
Sadly, Neville passed away in the mid-1990s. However, the fun and laughter we shared together during the days and nights of Earl’s Court in the 1980s can still be heard in its bars and streets.
This post was originally written and published as a guest post in April 2016 on TanGental. It has been updated for this version.
Click here to read another post from my Pride Month series which tells the story of a first date that went horribly wrong.
One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I never sat down with my mother and told her that I’m gay. I chose, instead, the easy option of writing to her and telling her that I was a homosexual.
Facing Mum for the first time, after writing that letter, I was very nervous as I travelled to where she lived. I hesitated several times before walking up to the front door, ringing the doorbell, and announcing my arrival.
What a shock I got when she came towards me with open arms and, as she gave me one of her wonderful hugs, hearing her whisper the words “I always knew you were gay, I don’t know why it took you so long to tell me.”
Not all my family were like mum, though. Some told me they were having difficulty in accepting what I was because it wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to men in the area we came from. Hurtful words, but I already knew that the best thing I could do was to keep away from those who were upset by the life I was given, and allow them to live their lives as they wanted.
Over the years, I regained contact with some of those family members and, thankfully, have the changing face of society to thank for bringing us back together.
The fact that, in the past, there had been a few other men in the family who had never married, never seemed to raise any suspicions that the family had gay people as a part of it. It may have been talked about, but never while I was in the room.
I don’t know if any of those men ever ‘came out.’ Probably not, but it must have been difficult for those that were gay at the time they lived. This only made me more determined to live my life how I wanted and not the way others wanted me to live it.
Moving to work and live in London, in 1986, was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. Although the city acted as a wall which seemed to protect gay people, I was still finding it difficult to ‘come out.’
It was a strange situation because the first two jobs I took in London were in industries where other openly gay people were employees.
When I took my next job, which would last 23-years, it took me six years to come out, and that was only when I heard the words “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” Of course, nobody cared that I was gay, yet for all those years I had been terrified what some of my work colleagues would think about me had I ‘come out’ of the closet.
Fast forward to today, and being gay is something much of society accepts. Or is it?
When we moved to our current home in South Wales, both my partner and I were a little hesitant that people would accept us. There are fewer people here than where we had lived for over 30 years. We were coming back to that place I’d been told that ‘being gay didn’t happen.’ We couldn’t have been more wrong!
People have been so welcoming, and we’re a part of the community as anyone else. Strange, though, that every now and again when I meet somebody for the first time and am asked who the other guy is that walks our dogs, I find myself hesitating before saying “he’s John, my partner.”