Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Monday, May 03, 2010
Second Spring in Soho
Ooh, is that a pansy I see sprouting seductively there between the cracks, my dears? God knows where the archives and the comments have gone though. Anyone got any Turkish Delight?

Thursday, February 10, 2005
Make My Bed And Light The Light
I'm invisible, all right? You may have noticed. But shed not a tear, my little darlings, I'll never be a stranger. For I'll be around. It's just you won't see me much for a little while. That's what invisibility is all about, after all.

Yet keep your wits about you, and your thieving hands off my Stellas, and you might just spot me. That faux-naïf in your comments box, reminding people not to be grubby, while needlessly-hyphenating words and letting loose with a legion of laughably-louche alliterations. That'll be me.

The ex-pat brooding in a Berlin bar, pretending he's in an Otto Dix painting, and whistling some verses from Weimar, while wishing he could swim, like dolphins, like dolphins can swim. Ja, mein lieber Herr, so bin ich.

The fortysomething gym queen, in the ridiculous top, grunting his way through hard iron while unsuccessfully trying not to tap his feet and sing along to the happy house they're pumping through the PA system. Yep. That's me as well.

That one-time member of the fageratti, older than he looks, but much younger than he feels, cruising his constant identity-crises down Compton Street, a Dorothy Parker wannabe taking Oscar's panthers out for a stroll. Well, need you ask?

In my head, if nowhere else, I'm just the wise-cracking love-child of Vampirella and Mister Tumnus himself.

Returned, revamped and regular when the snowdrops come out and the pansies are in bloom once more, my dears.

Then we'll meet up by the lamp-post. And the Turkish Delight's on me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Things I Learnt Over The Holiday Season
Showbiz-wannabe and actor manqué that I am, I'm a sucker for party games, and none more so than charades, as long as you remember just whose opportunity it is to seriously show off. (Song. Twenty-one words. Come on, my twinkle-toed dear, you really don't think you can catch me out on that one, do you? This theatrical Stranger can get it in one.) But please, don't give me that goodwill-to-all-men guff about it's the taking part that really counts. Bollocks. It's win, win, win every time, and don't you dare forget it, bitch. And wipe that blood off the parquet right now.

And at this saintly and hopeful time of year I do so want to be a kind, caring and considerate Stranger, really I do. But sometimes the temptation of sending out cards synchronised to arrive with the last post on December 24th, and thereby guilt-tripping the recipients over the fact they didn't reciprocate, is simply too good to resist. (Of course I don't mind, my neglectful dear, it probably got lost in the post. Oh, how very kind, mine's a round of Stellas, and what have I done to deserve this?)

And when you give up the chance of wishing Happy New Years to coked-up champagne castaways in some crowded Islington bar, in favour of watching the extended version of Lord of the Rings with just Mr Absolut and a plate of smoked salmon for company, then it's time to realise, my precious dear, that if you don't get your act together soon you shouldn't be at all surprised if you and Smeagol aren't voted Compton Street's celebrity couple for the next twelve months.

Oh, very well, 2005, sneak on in, if you insist. Let’s check out what cuddly toys you have for me on your conveyer belt this time round. But remember: whatever happens, just make sure that glitter is involved.

Tons of it.

Monday, December 20, 2004
Island Life
As part of his job as a money-launderer and part-time smuggler — I do keep the most select company, my dears, you really ought to come out with me more often — one of my erstwhile friends used to fly over on a regular basis to the UK, or the "Island" as he called it. It wasn't meant as a term of affection.

Depending on which piece of bad attitude he was sneaking through customs that particular weekend, it was either a reference to what he perceived as our Little Englander mindset, or to our ramshackle infrastructure and general inability to organise even a dose of the clap in a Camden Town knocking-shop. Considering he was then living under one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa, and that he hailed from a South American country tangoing its way to bankruptcy, coming from him I thought that was pretty rich.

But when you've just returned from a place where not only do the trains run on time, but you suspect they don't run at all, as your rail journey is so smooth it feels stationary and instead it's the scenery outside your window that's being moved by eager Bundesbahn scene-shifters…

….and when the no-frills and delayed tin can you're travelling in has only egg-and-cress sandwiches left, and your stewardess, far from being a gentle colleen from Kilkenny, is an Amazon huntress from Andalucia with an accent so strong you half expect Sylvia Vrethammar to turn up and lead the service team down the centre aisle in an enthusiastic chorus of "Y Viva España"

…and when you touch down at a supposedly international airport, where all the signs are in English, and there's not an Ausgang, sortie, or salada to be seen, and you're informed the last London-bound train left at nine because it's Sunday and that's what always happens Sundays, even though scary señorita was merrily fleecing passengers for twenty-two quid return tickets up in the air just thirty minutes ago…

… and when you turn up for the replacement coach service to find you can't board without a ticket, and the driver isn't allowed to take any money, so you've got to get your ticket from the little man in the ticket-booth who isn't there any more…

When all this happens, as it did last night on my return from Berlin, then you start thinking my dodgy Anglophobic friend might just have had a point after all.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004
You'd Better Watch Out…
I'm flying off to Berlin next week for a couple of days. Regular readers will be aware of my long-time love affair with the city on the Prussian plain. You all must know by now that I'm really just an Isherwood wannabe, brooding in a bar, and searching for his very own Sally Bowles. This time, however, I'm particularly looking forward to the trip.

When it comes to the period leading up to December 25th, I definitely belong to the Scrooge school of thought. Anyone wishing me tidings of comfort and joy is likely to be seen off with a joyless and uncomfortable piece of mistletoe rammed up somewhere the winter sun never shines. The pubs are overcharging, the trains are running down, and there's only a certain number of times a grown man can listen to a group of winsome carollers murdering "Silent Night" and not decide old Herod had the right idea, after all. And I also hate the hypocrisy of the supposed birthday of someone, in whom a large percentage don't believe, being hijacked as an excuse for one mega-fest of tack and trash, of cack and cash. And no, I don't get many cards or presents, since you ask.

Which brings me to the reason why I'm so looking forward to revisiting Berlin at this time of year. For if there's one thing Germans do really well — and with a charm and a panache and a sincerity we Brits could do to learn — then it's Christmas. Beneath their often icy exterior, there beats a heart of the purest slush, and during the big Advent countdown, you can't move without stumbling across a Christmas market, from the tiniest Bavarian village to the largest Prussian metropolis.

These aren't corporate-sponsored cash-ins, well, at least not so you'd notice. Rather they’re effectively traditional craft fairs, their creaking stalls selling all manner of superbly hand-crafted wooden toys and marionettes, home-made candles and ornaments, sweetmeats and gingerbread men, as well as more Glühwein and Wurst than this particular homo knows how to handle. And even with the glitz and the glitter, and yes, the occasionally naff carol singers, they somehow keep to just the right side of kitsch. Sentimental old sausages, my dear Krauts.

Of course, you'd expect the slightly camper Berlin establishments to get into the act, but even the ever-so-butch bender-bars join in the fun as well. And you've never really experienced the festive season (and nor may you want to) until you've unwittingly stumbled into some perverts' palace, where the management has twisted sprigs of holly round the handcuffs, and hung sleigh-bells on the slings, and there's a leather queen in a Santa bobble-hat, rubbing his crotch by the twinkling fairy-lights leading down to the darkroom. Why, it's enough to make a Stranger believe in the magic of Christmas, after all.

Only not quite. For when you return home to your flat in N7, as I did last night, to find that the five-quid-from-Woolies, glow-in-the-dark, plastic Santa has tumbled from the upstairs neighbours' window-ledge, and is now dangling from a cord and maniacally ho-ho-ho-ing at you through your front-window, then it's very definitely time to reach for the humbugs.

You can keep your Christmas, my dears. Just let me have my Weihnachten.

Love Story
Happy twentieth anniversary, darling.

Friday, December 03, 2004
Small World
Once I used gently to mock my mother's class and generation for spending their entire lives working, living, playing and dying in the same tiny town, often down the same narrow Coronation Streets, never thinking of venturing outside its cobble-stoned borders into the wider and foreign world Now, as I stumble dazed towards a crisis not just on Old Compton Street, but in mid-life too, I think I might just be turning into one of them, as far as my adopted London is concerned.

When I first arrived in the capital, I had no concept of the city being a collection of discrete villages, each one with its own boundaries and character. No-one had told me of those ancient statutes forbidding North Londoners from ever going south of the river, or that genuine East Enders rarely left their local manor to go up West. For a wide-eyed and innocent Stranger, London was just one big whole, a brand-new toy-shop to explore. North, south, east and west, I ransacked it of all its cultural and historic treasures, of all its sights and sounds — and a good few other things as well.

Pretty soon I had a passing acquaintance with the capital so comprehensive I could probably even have made a halfway-decent attempt at the cabbies' Knowledge, if I'd been bothered enough to pass my driving test, that is.

(The bitchier of you may point out that much of this familiarity was gained during my Slapper Years, when I seldom ventured out without my toothbrush and a copy of the A-Z to help me find my way home in the morning after a night spent at Heaven. For my part, I would point out that you're just being grubby, and, besides, you can't prove a thing.)

And now? Well, apart from theatre trips to the National and the odd venture into the gay republic of Vauxhall, I haven't been south of Leicester Square — never mind the river — in years. One simply doesn't do west of Marble Arch (well, Selfridges, actually) these days, darling, and no-one's caught me north of Hampstead since they downed the trees behind Jack Straw's Castle. And as for the East End, all the chopped-herring bagels in Brick Lane won't get me past Bethnal Green Road come Saturday night.

This Stranger's life is spinning around in ever-decreasing circles, like mucky bath-water glug-glug-glugging down the plughole. His homo h(a)unting-grounds are shrinking faster than an E-bunny's boner, and his social life seems now confined to a few not-so-mean but safe-bet streets and venues in Soho, the Angel and Camden. Someone wanted to take me on a romantic date to Ikea the other week. When he told me it was in Zone Three, the poor love didn't see me for fairy-dust.

And it's pretty obvious where all this is going to end, isn't it? Mark my words, this time next year, I'll have become a virtual recluse. You'll find me rarely leaving my tiny room and its two-bar fire, confined to my bed with a swansdown wrap around my shoulders, going grumpy and gaga on gin. If it was good enough for Marlene, my dears, then it's certainly going to be good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Ask Me
These days, I rarely wear a red AIDS ribbon. From once being a badge of awareness and solidarity, it’s now been reduced to a mere token, no longer even a politically-correct fashion statement, and so common and everyday it's for all intents and purposes invisible.

And I don't want it to be. And that's why today is the only day you'll ever catch me wearing one. And I want people to stop me in the street. And I want them to ask why just this one day of all days. And I want them to ask about Buddy, and about Stephen, and about Alastair and Miles and David and Phil and all the countless others.

Oh my friends, forgive me
That I live and you are gone.
There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.

Oh my friends, don't ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.

And then I want them to tell me what they're going to do to help.

Update: Zero Patience
HIV is a problem which threatens everyone. Globally, most of those affected are heterosexual, and a disproportionate amount at risk, as Blue Witch points out, are women. But here in the UK it's we gay men who have, so far, been most visibly affected by the epidemic. So, tonight you might have expected to have seen at least the odd red ribbon or twenty as you schmoozed your way through the Soho gays.

But heavens, silly little Stranger was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time tonight, wasn't he? (London's Old Compton Street, Queer Central, on World AIDS Day.) For, my dears, he counted but just fifteen. Three of them magnificent in-yer-face, red-lamé mega-ribbons outside gay pub, Comptons; another five on the chests of that bar's staff. Oh yes, and a couple more adorning a pair of shop dummies in the window of homo superstore Clone Zone.

And just five – go on, count 'em – five-four-three-two-one – on the coat-lapel, bag-strap or beanie-hat of your average metro-Mary on the move.

You know, sometimes, my fellow, complacent, never-going-to-happen-to-me queers just make me want to puke.

(And yes, I do realise that some of this may seem to contradict what I said earlier. But sometimes I just wish that people would remember. And give a f**k.)

Thursday, November 25, 2004
Mistaking Identities
I love shattering illusions, and altering the way people perceive things. I don't do it maliciously though. Well, not since I was a brat in short pants and I gleefully informed next-door's pig-tailed six-year-old there really wasn't a Santa Claus after all (although in later life I was to discover that there were very definitely fairies at the bottom of my particular garden).

I particularly like putting people, er, straight on sexual stereotypes. Despite what Graham Norton might have us believe, not all gay men are prancing sex-mad nancy-boys, and not all Sapphics pipe-smoking, bull-dyke Gertrude Stein look-alikes, and occasionally they even talk to each other as well. Sometimes it's fun to point out that the butch building-site worker is, in fact, a raving screamer, or that fragrant mincing hairdresser has a wife and three kids, and has shagged more women than you've had crises on Old Compton Street.

In my experience things are rarely what they seem, as was displayed in my usually quite well-adjusted and metrosexual-wannabe local only the other day:
Sweet Innocent Barmaid: "You know your friend, the Stranger, well, this might be a kind of personal question but…"
Friend of Stranger (sighs): "Yes, he is."
SIB: "Are you sure? That can't be right. I mean, I saw him in here last night on the sofa with this really, really beautiful and glamorous young woman."
FoS: "Oh, her. She's a lesbian."
SIB (spilling the Stella she's pouring): "Oh."

You couldn't make it up, my dears.

Monday, November 22, 2004
Here I Am In A Roomful Of Strangers
A couple of days ago, I got a call on the mobile. It was one of those frantic Friday-evening SOS calls, when you suddenly realise it's the weekend and you've nada on your dance card, and where's the Queertown kudos in that, my shallow Soho socialite? Never mind though, when everyone else has stood you up, there's always Stranger. He'll never let you down, and he's anyone's for a Stella.

Sadly I had to tell my desperate friend that I couldn’t meet up, as I was on my way to not one of my favourite pubs for an appointment with a group of people I'd never even met, or spoken to, and, what's more, I didn't have even the slightest notion of what any of them looked like (although I was led to believe that one of them might have been wearing a pointy blue hat).

The "oh-yeah?" tone of her voice, and the fact she hung up in a huff, makes me think she didn't believe me, or at the very least thought I was taking the piss. Either that, or she was convinced I was on my way to a secret speed-dating session, and what did my mother always say about talking to strangers anyway?

For when you think about it, meeting up with people you think you know well, solely through what they choose to reveal of themselves on-line, isn't possibly the most normal thing to do, and, quite frankly, it's a little scary too. The only other time I turned up at one of these blogging get-togethers, I chickened out at the last minute, and high-tailed it back to the comparative safety of Old Compton Street and last orders.

So a million-and-one mwah-mwahs to everyone who made a Stranger feel not like a stranger, and relieved me of my blogmeet virginity in such a delightful and alcoholic way last Friday night. The only disappointment was that there wasn't some sort of quiz. I don't think anyone realised quite how much revision I'd put in, and how many individual archives I'd read in the days before, just so I wouldn't be caught out and put my size-nines in it with the wrong person. All that hard work to impress, and not even a starter for ten!

Of course, while I didn't know what my fellow webloggers looked like, they were in the same situation when it came to me (with the added disadvantage that I am invisible, after all). And later on, when I had finally achieved some kind of opacity, it was remarked that certain people had previously always envisaged me as being a Tom Baker sort of character, all long scarf and Fedora.

I'm not sure how to take that one. Did they see me as a fine actor and writer, a wit and raconteur, a bon viveur bringing a fin-de-siècle elegance to the proceedings? Or did they imagine me as some thousand-year-old geezer, bonkers as a bandersnatch, with a dodgy line in cyber-chums, and a history of being heroically sozzled in Soho pubs?

Please don’t answer that one.

Thursday, November 18, 2004
The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd
The Producers, Mel Brooks' smash-hit stage version of his cult movie, is currently the hottest ticket in London, with the homo-world and its shag-on-the-side prepared to sell their comprehensive stash of Class A's and Clarins just to nab a couple of tatty seats up there in the gods.

And for once it's a show worthy of the hokum and hoopla, the best of its kind in the West End since the near-legendary revival of Guys and Dolls at the National well over twenty years ago. And what's more, it's a real, honest-to-goose-stepping musical, none of that seriously dreary and Really Useless nonsense. And it comes complete with brassy Brunhildas, show-stopping storm-troopers, and an up-for-it gang of sex-starved old biddies doing a tap-dance routine with their Zimmers,

The highlight, of course, is the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence ("Don't be stupid/ Be a smartie/ Come and join the Nazi Party"), the sort of glitzy spectacular Leni Riefenstahl and Busby Berkeley might have come up with after one too many nights on the Liebfraumilch. It manages to be offensive to Jews and Gentiles, Germans and gays, and Bavarian pigeon-fanciers alike, which can't be bad. All done in the worst possible taste, natürlich, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world, or even a little piece of the Sudetenland.

But the best bit for me comes earlier in the show, when one of the two leads, a spineless, do-everything-by-the book, fourth-rate nobody (accountant), played by the excellent Lee Evans, decides he's done with the old corporate kow-towing and tells his slimeball of a boss just where he can stick his Dixon Ticonderoga number two pencil.

And then, accompanied by a veritable cleavage of chorines, he chucks the certainty of routine, and soft-shoe-shuffles his way off into the sunset, or, in his case, the Broadway lights of the Great White Way, to realise his dream.

I wanna be a producer
Wear a tux on op'ning nights!
I wanna be a producer
And see my name up there in lights!

I wanna be a producer
Show the world just what I've got
I wanna be a producer
'Cause it's everything I'm not . . .

Oh, my nine-to-five darlings, that discordant twang you hear is a chord being struck somewhere in the atomic alarm-clock this Stranger has in place of a heart. Ditching what you've settled for, in favour of what you've always dreamed about, setting off on that high-wire with no safety net to break your fall. Isn't that really what we all want to do? You know, it's not the things you do in this life which you regret, but the things you don't.

Sitting in the stalls as a kid, I would always much rather have been up there on stage, dancing with the chorus boys. Of course, at that age I didn't realise that dancing wasn't quite what I wanted to do with the chorus boys. And despite the twisted sisters of today saying I'm "theatrical" enough already, and that I've been performing ever since my first Streisand LP, whenever anyone asked I'd always say I wanted to be an astronaut instead. (Whichever way, I suppose I'd still be flying off with the fairies.)

I did some Am Dram at University, when I wasn't making a colossal flop of whoring my way to a non-existent job in the mee-jah, that is, and surprisingly always got given the over-the-top and "camp" roles. (I can't think why.) But I never developed my theatrical – ahem – bent, after I graduated.

There's a reason for that. You see, back in infants' school, we did a couple of little plays a year. I even got to act the Virgin Mary in one of them, and let me assure you that never has a Mary been more winsome in a wimple as this Mary was at a mere six years old.

However, the play I remember best was the tale of Jonah and the Whale. My fellow classmates had to lie on the classroom floor, forming the outline of a whale, the idea being that the spotty and obnoxious kid playing Jonah would be swallowed whole by them.

Taking pride in the fact I was most certainly the spottiest and most obnoxious kid in the world, I naturally assumed the star role would be mine for the taking. Imagine my horror when the role went to my then-worst enemy. Imagine the tears! Imagine the tantrums! Imagine the childish sulks and the hissy fits! Imagine me at chucking-out time on Compton Street come Saturday night: it’s pretty much the same thing.

Finally, and to shut me up, the teacher took me to one side and assured me there was one part left to be cast, one part which had been written especially with me in mind. And, as she lifted me up onto a desk so that I could now look omnisciently down on Moby Dick and his dinner, she reminded me how pivotal my role was to the story, and how no-one but Master Stranger himself could give the part the authority and the dignity it deserved.

And that, my dears, is why I've never seriously pursued my acting ambitions. (And, come to think of it, probably explains a whole lot more as well.)

For once you've played at being God, then everything else can only ever be a bit part.

* * *

(This wasn't the post I'd planned and, to be honest, I'm not quite sure what it’s all been about. But if you hear that I've suddenly run off to join the circus then you shouldn't act in the least bit surprised.)