Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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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.)