Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Thursday, November 27, 2003
Dalek, I Love You
Last night, a friend, far too young ever to have met them in real life, and only familiar with black-and-white newspaper photographs, casually asked me what colour a Dalek was. Only, not knowing any better, she pronounced it "Day-lik", instead of "Dar-lek".

After I'd corrected her and then patiently explained in great detail that it all depended on which rival faction you were talking about, at which particular point in whose version of their history, and whether you regarded as canonical the telly, the movies, the comics, or the DIY version, it was politely suggested it might be time for me to get my cloakroom ticket and retrieve my anorak from the coat-check.

My contacts tell me there's a rather racy new drug out on the streets these days. I believe it's called "Life". Must think about getting myself one.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Northern Life
I live in North London, no more than a whore's toss from King's Cross. I've done so for the past four years, the longest time I've ever lived anywhere in the capital. Over my twenty-odd years of a gypsy and rootless existence in London, I've had flats in the south, west, east and the centre, and even, for one ghastly year of mediocrity, in Twickenham. But no matter where I've hung my hat or baseball cap, I've always been pulled back by that umbilical cord connecting me to North London. And this time it looks as though I'm settled and here to stay.

I love the area's elevated position above the City, so that, no matter where you are, you're either looking down on something (in my case, the dome of Saint Paul's) or up at the green of Highgate and Hampstead, and the good old Ally Pally in the distance. I love its juxtaposition of rich and poor, grunge and glitter, and wide ethnic mix from the Greeks and Turks in Green Lanes to the Irish and Extraterrestrials of Camden Town.

Some of the best times of my life have been spent in posh N1 and NW3 (and even better times in not-quite-so-posh NW1 and N7). My first real London mates were here, and we'd meet up regularly, even though, at the time, I lived fifty minutes' tube ride away to the west in Ealing. Even today, we occasionally bump into each other in the very same local we frequented all those years ago. It was also here that I used to – well, let's not get into that here, shall we?

I've had some of the worst times of my life here too: break-ups and bust-ups, even the murder of someone I knew, and my heart was once broken, perhaps irreparably, on the bottom deck of the Number Nineteen bus.

I remember the tube station when it was just one murky muggers' delight, and not the hi-tech hamster-run it is today. I can recall a time when there were more Oxfam shops on the high street than restaurants and DJ bars, and when that trendy and quite unnecessary new loft development was an award-winning comprehensive. Why, I go so far back that I even have race-memories of Camden before the Goths touched down, and the Market when it was actually rather good and one of London's best-kept secrets.

It's these memories, good and bad, which link me to my patch of North London, and make me care what's going to happen to that little development down the road, or persuade me to sign the petition to save that building on the corner from demolition. Of all the London "villages" in which I've lived, this is the one that's shaped me, the one place I feel I most belong.

And to feel that you belong, particularly in London, and especially for a single gay man, well, I think that's something worth blogging about.

Friday, November 21, 2003
Perfect Skin
Regular readers will know I seldom talk about my personal life. But I've been doing this blog for a while now, and I reckon I can trust you with the details of one who's shared almost my entire life in London.

I still remember the day we met. It was Saturday 8th December 1984, round about three in the afternoon, on London's Piccadilly. It was one of those crisp and clear winter's days, the sky a grim shade of grey, and it was lust at first sight.

Friends would tell me later they thought him way out of my league, and very high-maintenance. He was certainly different to the biker type I hung out with when I was whoring my way through half of the Coleherne in Earl's Court. Deep inside, though, I knew that here, at last, was the one for me. We were made for each other.

What first attracted me was his smooth, perfect skin, soft and warm to the touch as a baby's, and his sexy, distinctive animal smell, which, once scented, could never be forgotten. And even though I would later discover he could be very supple (ahem) in the places where it mattered, there wasn't a hint of effeminacy about him.

In fact he was as butch as rivets, and had the classic V-shape physique of broad shoulders and strong, wide back, tapering down to a narrow waist. I was later to discover he was English, but initially imagined him to be a moody Italian. Elegant and smoulderingly sophisticated, he certainly looked the part, and you could easily have pictured him pouting magnificently from the pages of L'Uomo Vogue.

We went on our first semi-official date that very night to a posh and pricey Chinese restaurant in West London. I'd also invited along a good and trusted friend to check him out over the crispy aromatic duck, and confirm that I was doing the right thing. I got the thumbs up: my mate could hardly keep his eyes, or his hands, off him all evening.

Within a couple of weeks, lust had very definitely turned to love, and I somehow found the cash to take him with me to New York for Christmas. Back home, we'd go out almost every night, and, of course, always to the most stylish places. Whenever we entered a room together, admiring eyes would turn in our direction. We looked good together; and, even though most of the attention was focused on him, I was still able to bask in the reflected glory, as I showed him off to everybody.

By now, I think I'd become a little obsessive about our relationship. I'd never let him out of my sight, for one thing, scared that one of the jealous queens at Heaven or the Copa would steal him away from me. They all wanted him, I knew that. Some of them even tried their luck.

But, my dears, they never got their grubby hands on him, and next year we'll have been together twenty years. Of course, over the years, people change, and some of the glamour and shine inevitably goes off a relationship. These days, we don't go out together as much as we used to, maybe just five or six times a month. More often than not I'm seen with younger and trendier and more flighty models. But when we do hit Soho, he makes me feel just as good as he did when we first set eyes on each other.

And, you know, the old dear still looks fantastic for his age, even though he's getting a little ragged round the edges now, and is starting to creak a little. And no matter where I've been or who I've seen, he's always there at home, faithfully waiting for me at the end of the day, rewarding me for all the care and attention I've given him over the years.

In 1984, friends told me I was stark raving mad to spend four hundred quid on a black designer leather jacket from Simpsons in Piccadilly. Nineteen years on, I have no regrets. And we still look great together.

Thursday, November 20, 2003
Send In The Clowns
Stranger, dear, could you possibly? And you’re the only one who… And I know I should have mentioned this earlier… And can you fix… And about that teensy-weensy favour… Oh, that's not quite what I meant… And shall I just leave it here then?.. Oh, silly me, is that what it's for… And two o'clock yesterday seems reasonable, don't you think?

If you want a job well doing, then ask a busy person: that's what they always said to shut me up, anyway. But can't they see I'm trying to write a bloody blog here? If I'd known a large part of this week would involve me juggling with more balls than a Compton Street slapper on Saturday night, then I'd have run off and joined Billy Smart's. At least there you get to work with the clowns, rather than for them.

Monday, November 17, 2003
East End Boy
In the eighties I lived for a long period of my life on the borders of London's East End, and the notorious London Apprentice pub late-night slut-hut up the road in Shoreditch was practically my local. Most nights I'd be down there (sometimes in more ways than one), often staying till the end. My worse-for-wear 2 a.m. zig-zag home would then take me past empty, forgotten buildings and boarded-up warehouses, as well as the local smack squad and their pimps, and through unlit, deserted streets, which hadn't changed much since Jack the Ripper indulged in his little "jollies" there a century ago.

Strangely enough, I never once felt threatened or menaced, and this wasn't just down to the Dutch courage and devil-may-care attitude you only discover after six or seven cans of Breaker. As far as I was concerned, this was my "manor", and I felt at home and safe amongst the inner-city dereliction and the disused railway yards and the predictable night-time domestics echoing from the bleak high-rises round the corner. Besides, if a latter-day Jack were to come my way then I knew each twist and turn of every alley and escape route far better than any queer-basher or serial killer wannabe.

Last weekend, I was back in the neighbourhood to catch up with a friend who manages a pub in the area. It must have been my first return visit in eleven years, and, my, but the old place has come up in the world. And I suppose it could just have been a bad night, but I hated it.

Seedy Hoxton Square, last resort for LA leather-queens who hadn't copped off by Time-Gentlemen-Please, is now the favoured haunt of the capital's arty trendies, all unmade beds and Chapman dollies. The London Apprentice itself is now a club venue (although still host to a Sunday gay night, by all accounts not half as dark and dirty as the original). And where once the best you could hope for in the food department was cod 'n' chips wrapped in the News of the World under the railway bridge, now you can max your gold Amex on top-priced Tex-Mex treats. Just about the only thing remaining from my past is Hawksmoor's splendid Christ Church, white and defiant against the iron Shoreditch sky, although I'm willing to bet some property tycoon's already got his eyes on that as an "exciting new Manhattan-style loft development". Darling.

So far, so OK-ish. It’s the new bars which I can't stand. Back when I lurked here, you had the LA for the benders, and refreshingly down-to-earth boozers for every one else. The LA excepted, these places were rarely frequented by anyone other than the locals.

Now, the area is on the up and up and fabbed-out with self-called sophisticated "style" bars on every corner, hot neon luring punters in from beyond Zone Three to see just how many Breezers Shazza can get down her gob before chucking up over Wayne's new Versace jeans. Cro-Magnons in dinner suits and earpieces patrol the entrances to these bars, picking fights with stag parties, and taking back-handers from minicab-drivers; and, come Chucking-Out Time, the mayhem resembles nothing less than Albert Square after its Christmas special. Heaven knows what the old locals think of it all, if, that is, they're still there, and haven't been forced out by sky-high rents and property prices.

Scared? When I was walking back through the area on my way home at four o'clock last Sunday morning, you bet I was, as the lads fell out of the bars and face-down into the gutters. A (straight) mate of mine got mugged round here a couple of months back by a gang of out-of-town piss-heads, something which I like to think wouldn't have happened in my day. Back then, on the rare occasions when there was a Saturday night punch-up, it was usually all kept within the local "family"; and anyway the only people who went there were puffs and genuine East End geezers, who, for some reason I've never quite figured out, have always held a grudging respect for each other.

Urban renewal? Give me Desolation Row any day. It's safer. And prettier.

Thursday, November 13, 2003
Kids R Us
I am a grown man of a certain age, who can no longer tell you which manufactured bit of jailbait is currently Number One. I have burdens and responsibilities which I should at all times shoulder in a detached, stoic and professional manner; and, given the choice, I'd rather watch Question Time than a late-night episode of Buffy or Angel. And while my personal life is my own affair, it should nevertheless be conducted in the privacy of my own home, or, at the very least, in the company of like-minded and discreet individuals.

Bollocks. If I want to skip home from work tonight on this balmy autumnal evening, whistling and kicking up the red and gold and brown and orange leaves as I go along, then whistling and kicking up the red and gold and brown and orange leaves as I go along is exactly what I am bloody well going to do.

Don't ever want to grow up. Probably never will.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Porn Takes Queen
Over the weekend, and following a rather "interesting" Saturday night, I realised with some surprise that never in my life have I bought any pornography. Of course, over the years I've inherited or been given the odd mucky mag or second-generation VHS from friends, but I've never actually gone out with the intention of bagging myself some prime, over-the-counter, hard-core filth.

Quite honestly, I could never be arsed. I've nothing against non-exploitative porn, performed between two or more consenting adults, but I've never really got into it, at least not in the way some of my more anal (ahem) friends have, cataloguing and colour-coding their VHS and DVDs according to the variety of sexual positions contained therein and the duration and volume (measured in centilitres) of the "money shot".

Anyway, I'm a snooty and arty sort of Stranger, and reckon Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, or a freshly martyred Saint Sebastian, packs more erotic punch than Jeff Stryker repeatedly popping someone in the pooper.

I realised that this was doing my Compton Street faggot credentials no good at all. Why, the next thing I'll be saying is that Madonna is past it and Ab Fab a sad and endless retread of what was once a pretty good idea (or should those two be the other way round?). And that would never do.

So on Sunday, in an attempt to live down to stereotype, I visited my friendly neighbourhood sex shop, passing the no-under-eighteens sign, and the warning notice that punters weren't allowed to proposition fellow customers, to check out what was on offer out back.

Licensed sex shops are big business these days, welcoming in the pink overdraft with bright lights, potted palms and piped classical music, as well as tasteful displays of unfeasibly large things to put up your bottom. The next thing you know, they'll be opening cappuccino concessions, so you can lay back with a latte while deliberating whether two ends are better than one on that shaft of silicone you're had your eyes on for far too long.

It's all so upfront and out in the open, which, of course, is a good thing, and nothing to be ashamed of; but it's also so terribly clinical, as you check out the DVDs on sale, selecting tonight's thirty-quid orgasm as if you were choosing a chorizo. Whatever happened to sex being just that little bit naughty and titillating? And, well, teasing and surprising? Less is more, as far as I'm concerned, and a hint of tumescence far sexier than said tumescence being thrust right into your, er, face. I'm willing to bet exactly the same goes for straight videos as well.

Nowadays, you might as well be shopping at your local supermarket, with the only difference being that at Tesco's you get a better selection of sausages. For while we're intently studying the blurb on the back on the DVD as though it were the cover copy for next year's Booker contender, all we're really interested in is the size of their willies and what they get up to with them. And the willies of these overgrown wannabe Kens, bodies all buffed and hairlessly perfect, will do exactly what the willies of those overgrown wannabe Kens did in the last dirty video you spent your thirty quid on, which was exactly what… Once you've seen one Californian gang-bang then you've seen 'em all, my dears, which is why I find porn soooo boring (dah-ling), and why I'd never bought any.

Well, not until this weekend, that is, when I grabbed one DVD located in and around Berlin, on the grounds that it would offer me an alternative take on my favourite city, and at least the "actors" wouldn't be grunting in cod American accents.

That's what I told the man behind the counter anyway. I don't think he believed me.

Saturday, November 08, 2003
Smelling A Rat?
I was having a post-work chat the other day with a stranger I got talking to in a bar in Soho. Unusually for Old Compton Street, we were talking about "literature". Each of us was pretty well-read, and we discovered we had many favourite books in common. During the course of the conversation, he told me I reminded him of one particular fictional character above all others.

I blushed, and wondered which of my flawed literary heroes he thought I most resembled. Would it be Brideshead's Sebastian Flyte, that golden haunted youth adored by men and women alike? Or perhaps Dowson from Do You Remember England?, my favourite (and out-of-print for years) tale of a doomed Romantic ideal?

No, of course not. That would be silly. I don't look anything like Anthony Andrews, and the late Derek Marlowe is remembered, if at all, as a movie and TV scriptwriter rather than the author of some of the most economic twentieth-century prose I've ever read.

Perhaps my divinely decadent devil-may-care attitude reminded him of Sally Bowles from Isherwood's Goodbye To Berlin? Or maybe I seemed so much like a (very) older Tadzio, the beautiful boy from Death In Venice? And I've always thought I possessed some of the demonic charm of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books; and I wouldn't be at all offended if he cast me as a broodingly sexy and dangerous Heathcliffe, or even as one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's beautiful and damned.

Fat chance. Apparently, I reminded him of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the leading character in Patrick Süskind's cult read, Perfume. For those of you who haven't yet read it, and I urge that you do, Jean-Baptiste is an amoral and macabre child of hell, a vicious serial killer who meets his end in the sordid piss-stinking backstreets of the eighteenth century and in a particularly gruesome way.

I think this was my new friend's very classy way of telling me that a shag was out of the question.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Demon Barbers
For the past couple of years I've sported my own version of the Compton Street Crop, that low-maintenance haircut of the metropolitan gay man with incipient bald spot and sod-all imagination. Number two on top and number one at the sides please, mate (or a four and a three for queens like me who could never take seriously all that "straight-acting" bollocks in the first place).

It's all so simple, you see. A brief buzz of the electric clippers, a quick click-clicketty-click of the scissors, and it's all sorted, and you're out of the door before your pint of Stella next door has even gone flat. No need for pomade, or styling gels, or any other poncey products. And, what's more, you lucky old homosexual, you, you get to look just like everybody else on Old Compton Street. My, and isn't that nice?

But now I feel it's time to reassert what’s left of my individuality and independence, and grow my hair back again. I doubt I'll ever let it get as long as it was in the early nineties though, when I dandified my downtown way in frock-coat and breeches, tresses tied back with dark-green velvet bow, coming over all Byronic but looking just moronic.

So, a few days ago, I decided that, if I really was going to go with the over-the-collar look, then I'd better get the thing cut and restyled properly. And so, for the first time in about three years, I contemplated that urban nightmare known as: Getting Your Hair Cut At A Posh And Trendy Salon.

The intimidation begins even before you enter the place, when you telephone for an appointment. Back in your long-hair days when you were a regular at this particular establishment, you would normally ask for your usual stylist. But he's left, they inform you (or doesn't want to see your split ends ever again), and will Matt do instead?

Having not the slightest idea who Matt is, you agree, and then wisely enquire just how much Matt is going to cost. The cluck of disapproval in the background is a fault on the line, you convince yourself, and not the receptionist suggesting that, if you have to ask, then you certainly can't afford, and surely Sandra's more in Sir's price bracket anyway?

Ever eager to create a good impression, you arrive a good ten minutes early for your appointment, and consequentially walk around the block a couple of times, checking yourself out in every shop window to make sure your hair is just so. After all, Matt is Stylist to the Stars and you wouldn't want him to think he's dealing with some scruff, would you?

Stepping nervously through the salon door (and on-time, so there goes your fash cred, sweetie), you are greeted with total disdain by the receptionist, who's having far more fun swapping celeb goss over the phone with Beryl. Eventually, a junior will take pity on you and relieve you of your coat (which you will never see again), before helping you into the sort of gown that's currently all the rage down Holby morgue.

Of course, Matt isn't quite ready for you yet, you're informed, as he is far too busy charming an enormous tip off one of his blowsy blondes of a certain age (and cheque-book); but would you like to flick through an out-of-date magazine while you're waiting? As, even in your campest moments, you're never really been much of a Cosmo girl, and the only butch magazines on offer are Loaded and Classic Cars, you turn down the offer, and study instead the tasteful black-and-white model portrait shots lining the salon's minimalist chrome-metal walls. Each and every face is more beautiful and handsome, more sophisticated and air-brushed than you could ever hope to be. You feel as out of place as Lon Chaney settling down on the Calvin Klein casting couch.

After twenty minutes, and just as you're reading last July's Cosmo agony piece on how to cope with rejection and being ignored, Matt slicks over for a "consultation". Matt is tall, and even better-looking than those monochrome bastards on the wall, and you feel unworthy just to be in the presence of his three-day stubble. He also has possibly the worst taste in clothes you've ever seen in a man his age, apart from MTV presenters, that is; and his dark unkempt hair suggests he's been dragged through several bushes sideways.

Considering that this mal-soigné look is thought the pinnacle of perfection in Hairdressing Land, you begin to wonder what you're doing here handing over forty quid for a salon cut anyway. But it is too late. Already Matt is asking you what you want him to do to your hair. Matt's oh-so-square-cut jaw drops, and then drops further still, and his mouth gapes ever wider, as you outline exactly the style you want. Yeah, like right, you just know he's thinking, you really think someone like you would look good and be able to carry that off?

Matt mutters something about "layering", and "depth", and "structuring" (while tactfully avoiding words such as "mutton" and "lamb"), and, meekly, you nod your agreement. After all, he's a stylish and sophisticated coiffeur to the cognoscenti; and you, well, you're just a nobody and what do you know? Your follicles are his fiefdom now, as you feebly allow him to lead you away to have your hair washed and conditioned.

The Nicorette-chomping trainee awaiting you at the wash-basins holds you down, and then pulls your head backwards over the sink, in the swift, practised and uncaring move she probably learnt that time she was earning a bit of cash on the side down Fleet Street way. As she wets your neck and your classic Agnès B menswear (and occasionally your hair) with water (inevitably either too hot or too cold), and then applies invigorating peppermint conditioning treatment (which is neither invigorating nor made of peppermint), she'll ask you what you do for a living. When you tell her you've nothing to do with the telly or rag trade, she will lose all interest, and will pout off to answer her mobile, leaving wrapped around your head a wet towel which smells nothing of peppermint, but everything of Parazone

Finally, after she's sorted out her social and sexual arrangements for this Saturday, she'll return and assist you out of your chair, towel still turbaned around your head, and guide you back to Matt, who is awaiting, clippers and scissors in hand, in his eyes an eager gleam to make even Torquemada have second thoughts.

Oh, but it's not just the clippers Matt is wielding, but power. You know that, if you upset him just one bit, then that neat (yet stylish) trim you requested will be turned by him into a green and savage Mohican; and, urban professional that you are, just how are you going to explain that to Mamma Boss tomorrow morning as she hands you your P45?

But now here comes the scariest bit of them all. Surprisingly, it 's not being forced to make small talk with Matt, who, despite giving the impression of being as queer as a bottle of chips, is irretrievably and irredeemably heterosexual, and will tell you that being bent, well, it ain't natural, is it, but them gay boyz, well, they’re all right, aren't they, and they always know where to score the best gear, knowhatimean, and well, I tell you, mate, you wouldn't believe what some of them wooly wofftahs -

No, the scariest part is being forced to stare constantly for thirty minutes or more at your own reflection in the harsh, unforgiving light of the salon. While Matt is doing behind you whatever Matt apparently does so wonderfully well behind people, you have no choice but to contemplate your pale and waxy complexion in the mirror; to evaluate those dark circles under your red-rimmed eyes; to follow the London Underground network of wrinkles which, you finally realise, are here for keeps, as well as that suggestion of a double, or even triple, chin, which you've never noticed before, but mainly because you make a point of shaving in a bathroom into which you only ever allow candle-light or, when you're feeling particularly brave, a 60-watt lightbulb.

This is not the most pleasant way to spend forty quid (not to mention the tip, and the host of hair-improvement products which will be foisted upon you before you even make it past reception and escape once more into the wonderfully normal world of the dishevelled).

As I said: a few days ago I did indeed contemplate that urban nightmare known as: Getting Your Hair Cut At A Posh And Trendy Salon.

And what did I do in the end?

Well, what do you think? In the end it was a number two all over, mate. Cheers. That's perfect. In and out in under ten minutes.

And, you know what, my dears? I even got change from a tenner.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003
Dancing Is Dangerous
Owing To Licence Restrictions

We Regret To Inform You That




So runs the latest Diktat, which I'm seeing displayed more and more prominently in many venues on and around London's Old Compton Street, and issued by Westminster Council, the authority regulating most of central London's pubs and bars.

The deal is that, if you're a venue without a public entertainment licence, in what's supposedly one of the hippest and most happening cities in the world, then you stand the chance of being fined, or your business closed down, should you allow more than two of your punters to dance, or even to sway rhythmically, to whatever's currently being piped through the PA.

Actually, you don't even need the music, as the Council's definition of "dancing" is: "The rhythmic moving of the legs, arms and body usually changing positions within the floor space available and whether or not accompanied by musical support." So now you know.

(Just under a year ago, the local Pitcher and Piano was fined several grand for allowing the same "rhythmic moving" on its premises. In that particular instance, I would have nuked the entire place along with every last one of its customers, but that's a grievance for another blog.)

Interestingly enough, much of this initiative is supported by the Soho Society, an organisation dedicated to promoting the area, and whose meetings I've occasionally been invited to as an interested party. It's largely made up of self-important prigs who, once they've earned enough to live in one of the capital's priciest and most vibrant 24/7 areas, spend the rest of their time moaning about the very vibrancy which made their properties so valuable and desirable in the first place.

However, I'm not too worried, if only because Soho is also Queer Central. And it is a fact well-documented that, should two persons of a certain persuasion find themselves together in the same room, with a jukebox overloaded with Kylie and Madge, then there shall be much waving of arms, shaking of legs, and wiggling of buttocks whether Westminster Council likes it or not.

There are some behavioural patterns which not even Lily Law can change, my dears.