When I arrived in London in 1979, it was a month before the Tories under Mrs Thatcher took power. I’m not one of those who think her terms in office were the worst thing that ever has happened; a Curate’s egg from where I sit.
But one thing about which she was not just wrong but criminally wrong was her attitude towards homosexuals and gender differences generally.
Perhaps most notorious was her treatment of many in local authority and the teaching professions through the provisions of the notorious Section 28 of The Local Government Act 1988, viz, a local authority
shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
This was only repealed in England in 2003. Shame on us.
But if I’m honest, you might have found me ambivalent to the troubles this would cause a group of my neighbours. Everything in my life back then pointed me at differences rather than similarities. I had no gay friends back then, I knew of no ‘out’ gays, I was fully aware of the humour around that used gays of every rainbow hue as the butt of jokes and I laughed at what was in effect bullying. Yet you couldn’t be unaware, in London of all places, of a thriving gay underworld.
London has moved on; it is far more tolerant, if far from accepting and acceptable. And I have lovely friends of every hue.
So today, on our tour, we have reached ‘Q’ and I would like to acknowledge the importance of the gay and the wider LBGT community’s contribution to this fair city. I’ve invited a really lovely friend, known to many through his blog Hugh’s Views and News, Hugh Roberts, to take a trip down memory Lane and remember his days as a gay man in less than tolerant London.
In particular Earls Court – ah ha! So that’s why there are all this pictures of Earls Court….. Over to you Hugh.
“They all have moustaches, wear 501s and are called Clones.”
Those were my words to a friend upon my first visit to Earls 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 moustaches and body hair.
Back then, there were five gay bars in Earls Court. It was the centre of the universe for any gay man visiting London. It was easy to get to and I always felt safe there. It was as if the place had a safety bubble around it. No surprise then that I moved into a two bedroom flat in Earls Court shortly after arriving to live in London in 1986.
The most famous of the bars was called The Colherne. Now a trendy restaurant come wine bar which I believe serves some smashing food.
I spent lots of time in The Colherne. In the days when all pubs had to close their doors between 3 and 6pm (2 and 7pm on a Sunday), the place 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’ tunes which was a new type of music adopted by gay men. Yes, we even had our own music in those days.
I’d usually visit The Colherne with my best friend, Neville. Like me, he was into the same types of men. There was a strict rule about going into The Colherne. Those wearing leather, such as a bikers jacket, waistcoat, or chaps, had their own entrance door. Everybody else had to use the other door. 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 men 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. Frightening stuff for first-time visitors or anybody who entered the pub by mistake.
What made Neville and me laugh the most was that many of the Leather Queens, as they were known on the gay circuit, would often arrive carrying a motorcycle helmet under their arm. 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. At closing time, we’d watch most of them make their way to the bus-stop with motorcycle helmets under their arms. For some, carrying a motorcycle helmet was the must have new fashion accessory when dressed in leather.
Although the pub was probably the most shabby of all the five gay bars in Earls 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. This was the bar Neville and I nicknamed ‘Clone City’ because just about every man who entered had facial hair.
Bromptons opened at 10pm and closed at 2am. It was a 30-second walk from the flat so was very convenient. Friendlier than The Colherne, for those who’d never visited before, it had a small dance floor and a kiosk that sold all the latest Hi-NRG 12-inch vinyl singles. Yes, Gay Men only purchased 12-inch vinyl singles, unlike most other people who would buy the 7-inch vinyl version.
There was the odd splattering of leather amongst the crowd, but most were dressed in check shirts, 501s and Doc-Marten boots. Just about everyone drunk bottles, rather than pints, of lager and if you arrived really early you could compare your check shirt and see if it clashed badly with the check carpet of the bar. However, that didn’t matter to some because arriving before 11pm meant free entry.
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 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 Earls Court were located next door to each other. One was a pub 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, but whereas in the other bars it was very serious and you dare not laugh when trying to pick up your date for the night, here it didn’t matter.
Copacabana was next door and was the main Gay nightclub of the area and very handy to fall into when coming out of Harpoon Louis. This place was the biggest of all the bars 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.
Today, Earls Court is no longer the centre of the universe for gay men. Soho took its crown during the late 1990s and now shares it with Vauxhall. Neville and I would not have liked it. Earls Court holds lots of happy memories of two 20 something gay men. A lot has changed but the gay people of today still enjoy a good time.
Thank you Hugh. In 1980, my girlfriend and I were on a number 31 bus back to my flat near the World’s End in Chelsea. She was taken with an urgent need to pee as we reached Earls Court. No, she couldn’t wait she said as we jumped off by what was – indeed still is – the Bolton. In she shot, hunting out a loo. I followed and stood near the bar, wondering if the polite thing to do was buy a drink. Many eyes turned to look at me. I scanned the room – not many blue suits, no women, quite a lot of leather and unexpected areas of flesh. I can honestly say I didn’t feel at home.
And the odd thing then, looking back is that this was the pub Hugh recalls as for the rent Boys. See, back then, as now, the Boltons is a uber smart area of fabulously expensive properties with their own private squares. The mansion blocks feel more like Barcelona and the houses gated and feted. That’s London – contradictions everywhere.
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