Sunday, 17 November 2013

It's ok to be different, isn't it?

This article first appeared in on Thursday 21/9/2013, National Stand Up Day

My school days are such a long time ago now that I barely remember them, or is it that I just blotted them out?  They seem to belong to a different person who has absolutely nothing to do with the person I am now. I had no idea I would turn out to be gay, though anyone with half a brain could probably have figured it out. I was dancing (in my pram) before I could walk, singing perfectly in tune before I had the slightest idea what I was singing about (all lyrics reduced to lalala), and my favourite films were those involving plenty of song and dance, Fred and Ginger in particular. From an early age, all I wanted to do was dance.

This always singled me out as being a little different, but my earliest days at primary school were surprisingly happy. It was a mixed school and the other boys didn’t seem to mind that I preferred hanging out with the girls and not playing football with them. Well, they probably reasoned, at least they were spared having to pick me to be in their team. My school was in the middle of a highly middle class part of my home town, and the other pupils all came from the same area. Our parents all knew each other. It was a safe and cosy environment. Even so, though I don’t ever remember feeling physically threatened at my primary school, I had to learn to toss off the occasional jibes about being a sissy and a big girl. However in my last year or two, when I was sitting my eleven plus and preparing to go either to an all-boys Grammar School if I passed, or an all-boys Public School if I didn’t, I started to be picked on that bit more. School was not the fun place it had been when I was younger.

I had been taking tap dancing lessons since I was five and would constantly sail through my various exams. Dancing was not a boy’s pursuit though. The penny dropped when I looked around at one of the annual dance school displays and realised I was the only boy on stage. That was probably behind my decision to give up dancing lessons. l My dancing teacher, a friend of the family whom I knew as Auntie Joy, was pressing my mother and father to get me to start ballet. She had been a professional ballet dancer herself and an Honours Associate of the Royal Academy of Dance. She thought that, physically, I had the perfect proportions to be a ballet dancer. However, no amount of cajoling on the part of my parents was to make me change my mind. I had decided that there was no way I was going to be going to ballet class when I got to my next school, and, it has to be admitted, my parents didn’t try that hard to persuade me otherwise. It had been bad enough been singled out for going to tap dancing lessons. I was hardly going to make things worse for myself by doing ballet.

Secondary school (the local grammar) was to prove a terrible culture shock. It was my first exposure to boys from the other side of town, boys who were bright enough to pass their eleven plus, some of whom lived on council estates, and who had built up their own set of tools to deal with the harsher environment they came from. Grammar School was pretty egalitarian in that respect. Boys attending came from all over the town, not one single catchment area.  No doubt to many of them, it appeared I had a privileged existence, and in some ways I had. We holidayed in Greece (staying with my grandparents there) when air travel was only for the rich; my father ran his own business and drove a Jaguar. This was enough to single me out, but it probably didn’t help that, though I no longer went to dance classes, I maintained a keen interest in theatre and dance, and would often participate in local operatic society productions, for which my father was musical director. No doubt, all this would have been forgotten if I’d been a keen football player or rugby player, but I had absolutely no interest in sport. At primary school I had made friends with all the girls. Here there were no girls. I found it hard to make friends and I became an easy target. Nobody actually called me gay (well the word didn’t exist back then), but I was called a sissy and a poof, without any of us really understanding what that meant. You have to remember homosexuality was illegal in those days. There was no way I was going to admit to myself, let alone anyone else, that I was gay, and I still assumed that I would meet a girl, get married and have children. I knew virtually nothing about sex. Children were much more innocent in those days. Still the other boys sensed I was different, and this is what separated me from them.
I wasn’t the only boy to be bullied and ostracised though. There were others, who found it harder to get on than me, and I briefly befriended some of them, though ignominiously dumped them when I realised that being friends with them was doing me no good whatsoever.  I remember one boy committed suicide while I was there. He was an odd, skinny, intellectual boy, with National Health glasses held together with Elastoplast, evidently from a poor family. Nobody would have anything to do with him, and even the teachers teased him. When he died, there was an announcement in assembly, but the whole sorry business was glossed over. There was never any attempt to tackle bullying in the school, and, truth to tell, the teachers often colluded in it, the idea being that a certain amount of bullying was good for the softer kids, that it was character building.

 My elder brother had gone to the same school 4 years before me, and, though we fought like cat and dog at home, he was to prove to be my protector in my early years at Grammar school. He couldn’t be there all the time of course, but at least I had his protection on the walk home from school, and more than once he turned on boys who were calling me names. I don’t know how I’d have coped without him. I wouldn’t have known how to fight back and, other than my brother, my only defence was speed. I could outrun most of the boys in my year, a fact that was first brought home to me on the day we had some athletics tests. To the amazement of all the other boys, who had assumed all sissy boys were useless at sport, I came first in my year in the 100 and 220 (yards, not metres in those days) and also tested well in the long jump. My games master encouraged me to join the athletics team, but I flatly refused, not because I didn’t enjoy running and jumping, but because I didn’t want to spend any more time than I had to with boys who bullied and threatened me. So, for the second time, I didn’t do something I was good at out of fear, out of fear for what the other boys would do to me. I had earned a somewhat grudging respect because I could run, so the physical bullying stopped, but the verbal jibes continued. I was a sensitive child and it hurt. It’s taken me a long time to learn to ignore people who seek to hurt with words. Indeed the scars can take a lifetime to heal.

The only place I felt safe was in music classes, and my viola teacher, who knew how horrific games lessons were for me, ended up programming my viola lessons at the same time as the games periods, telling the headmaster there were no other slots available. I was eternally grateful to him. A kind, gentle, quietly spoken man, with weirdly wax like hands and fingers, I have no doubt that, though married, he was gay, not that I knew or guessed that at the time, but looking back, it seems plausible enough. I’m sure he recognised a kindred spirit. Still, in a more accepting environment, maybe I would not have accepted his offer of programming my viola classes so I could skip games. I admit I rather regret not participating in sport at school now. To this day, I feel a mild sense of panic when someone throws a ball at me, or puts a bat in my hand. I feel I’ve missed out.

When my brother went to university, I had to find a way to survive without him. I did so by if not actually mixing with the bad boys in school, by allying myself with them. I started smoking, let it be believed that I had a string of girlfriends. I’d buy girlie magazines like Mayfair, and make sure the other boys got to see them, though, in all honesty, nothing in their pages really did much for me. Still, they had the desired effect.  I started bunking off school too. Suddenly I was cool and the bullying stopped.

But of course I wasn’t cool. My schoolwork started to suffer. Much to the mortification of my parents, I was hauled up in front of the headmaster on more than one occasion. Though I managed to pass 6 out of 7 of my ‘O’ levels (we took a maximum of 7 in those days), I didn’t get the grades I should have done. I went from being one of the top three boys in my class to one of the bottom few. My ‘A’ level results were even worse, and I ended up having to go to a college to re-study and re-sit my English and French, in an attempt to improve my grades.

I suppose I was luckier than many. I never actually got beaten up (because I could runs so fast), and most of what I had to deal with was just words. Just words? I remember shouting back at my tormentors, “Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But it wasn’t true. Words can and do hurt. They hurt me; both emotionally at the time and also in stopping me doing things I was good at and should have enjoyed. I don’t know if I’d ever have been a great ballet dancer or a great sprinter, but the point is I never got to find out, nor did I find my true academic potential. Hell-bent on survival, education was all but forgotten. How many other young people are not doing well at school because of bullying and peer pressure? I have no doubt it is thousands. We hear of the tragic cases, of those , like that young boy at my school, who are driven to take their own lives, and that one young person should feel death is the only way out is reason enough to ensure we, as adults, do everything in our power to stop another child taking their own life. We should also be considering the wider implications of children not reaching their full potential because of the way they are treated by their peers at school. Children feel that they need to fit in, and respond easily to peer pressure. What we need to do is celebrate diversity. We still live in a culture where the boy who is good at football is going to be feted and revered, whilst the boy who is good at ballet is more likely to be ridiculed and called names. We need to tell children that you can be different and still fit in, but until we can celebrate diversity in the adult world, how can we hope to make things better for children?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Olympic Shame

So the IOC is “fully satisfied” that Russia’s anti-gay law doesn’t violate the Olympic Charter. Principle 6  of the Charter says: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."  Sexuality isn’t mentioned specifically (though, in the light of recent events, it seems clear to me that it should be), but it is surely understood within the term “otherwise”. However, according to Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for Sochi 2014, this only applies to Olympic territory, not to the country as a whole. He is satisfied that there will be no discrimination of any kind in the Olympic village, and adds that the IOC doesn't really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organised. Does this also apply then to any other country with human rights transgressions? If that is the case, can we see a time when the Olympics are taken to Zimbabwe for instance?

As it happens, the IOC don’t quite seem to believe the assurances themselves, as they are already warning athletes that any support for LGBT issues will be seen as political, and any athlete using the Games for political demonstration will be punished accordingly. The message that seems to be coming across here is that it is ok for Russia to discriminate against LGBT people, but not ok for anyone to speak up about it. Athletes are being advised to keep a low profile, deny who they are, if they are gay. This being the case, surely that would mean a legally married gay athlete might win a medal, but would not be allowed to publicly celebrate that event with their husband or wife because that would be against Russian law. Is that what you are saying, Mr Killy? I’m just asking for a little clarity on the issue, because clarity is something that has been sadly lacking. The only thing that seems clear is that the IOC will do anything to appease Putin and the Russians, and very little to stand up for LGBT rights.

At the recent U.S. Olympic Media summit in Park City, Utah, the US Olympic Committee had briefed athletes, telling them to stick to talk of sport and duck any issues regarding the Russian anti-gay law. Bravely Olympic gold medallist, skier Bode Miller, refused to be silenced. The IOC’s rules prohibit athletes from making political demonstrations at Games sites, but he took it as an opportunity to speak out about the duplicity that exists in sport.  “There are politics in sports and athletics, and they’re always intertwined,” Miller said. “Even though people try to keep them separate, or try to act like they’re separate, I think asking athletes to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy and all that different crap that kind of goes along with it, and then tell them they can’t express their views or they can’t say what they believe, I think is pretty hypocritical and unfair. But, you know the fact is, crappy situations like that have been happening for a long time. I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that there’s countries, there’s people, that are intolerant, that are ignorant.”

That, of course, is the nub of it. The IOC, and political leaders in the West constantly talk about keeping politics out of sport, but sport is political. I have no doubt that Putin sees the Olympics in terms of politics. There was a time, after the fall of the Berlin wall, when Russia was losing its place on the world stage, and Putin has been intent on winning that back by whatever means necessary. The Olympics will be a chance for him to show off Russian wealth and power, and he is using them in exactly the same way Hitler used the Berlin Olympics back in 1936. The IOC chose then to ignore all warnings about what was happening to Jews in Germany, and look what happened. In hindsight that might have seemed inexcusable, but it was much easier to ignore the warnings back then, much harder to find the evidence. Now it is not. The internet has seen to it that, try as they might, the Russians can’t hide what is going on in their own country, but, surprisingly, or maybe not, depending on how you view the IOC, officials are still ignoring all reports of the violence being perpetrated towards LGBT people, most of it silently condoned by the police and the Russian government. And, let’s face it, whatever happens within the Olympic village, there have already been veiled threats from Russian officials that, outside it, the new law will be vigorously enforced.  The only advice that seems to be coming from the IOC is to keep a low profile and go back into the closet.

 In other words, the IOC has totally failed to comprehend the scale of the problem in Russia, no doubt because of the inherent homophobia that still exists in sport as a whole. Come on, you can’t tell me that, out of the over 2000 athletes who competed in London in 2012, only 23 were gay. The reason there were only 23 is because the majority of LGBT sportsmen and women fear discrimination and ostracism from within their own ranks, and until that is addressed then I doubt very much will change.

 However, it is not only LGBT rights that are in question in Russia. Not so very long ago, two members of the girl group Pussy Riot were given prison sentences for daring to stage a protest against Putin. One of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, went on hunger strike in prison to protest lengthy work shifts, miserable payment for work, and the existence of illegal prison disciplinarian groups made up of inmates loyal to the administration, complaints held up by Members of Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights. Tolokonnikova was moved to a hospital on medical grounds and has ended her hunger strike, but has vowed to start it again if her demands for an investigation into rights violations in her penal colony, the removal of "psychological pressure" on inmates in the colony who talked about penitentiary conditions to inspectors, and her transfer to another penitentiary are not met.

More recently the Russians have seized a Greenpeace ship that was protesting against Russian oil drilling in the ecologically sensitive Arctic, accusing the activists and the two journalists on board of piracy, a crime which carries a 15 year jail sentence in Russia. This is a trumped up charge if ever there was one, and yet another example of Russia throwing its weight around. It’s my belief that the winter Olympics should never have been given to Russia in the first place, or in fact to any country that has a poor record on human rights, but can we ever expect the IOC to stand by its own charter? When money is at stake, I very much doubt it. Unfortunately, by the time the Games actually start in Sochi in February next year, I fear that all talk of human rights and human rights transgressions will be completely forgotten by the media as it gets swept up in the quest for medals and sporting glory. After all, nothing is more important than sport!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Interview with a Naked Rower

This article first appeared in TheGayUK

It was a warm, sunny day in August when I am admitted to the plush inner sanctum of the Groucho Club in Soho. I am here to interview Angus Malcolm, the photographer and mastermind behind the incredibly successful Warwick Rowing Club Naked Calendar, now in its fourth year. Waiting for me at a table in the corner is Angus himself and an arrestingly beautiful young man, tall, blond and blue eyed, who is introduced to me as Lawrence, one of the stars of the coming year’s Naked Calendar from the Warwickshire Rowers. Unfortunately not naked on this occasion, his well-nigh perfect physique is easily evident beneath the simple blue jeans and white t-shirt that he is wearing.

Trying not to drool too obviously, I turn my attention to Angus and ask him how the calendar came about and how he became involved.

“Well, I was actually a writer and producer in TV and film and I used to work in the health and charity sector.  In 2008 I felt like doing something different. Having always had a keen interest in photography, I started photographing men. I was approached by a guy on the website modelmayhem and found out he was part of rowing team. At the shoot I asked him if the club had ever thought of doing a charity calendar. As it turned out, he said that they had been actually thinking very seriously about it, so our meeting was quite serendipitous really. Initially the calendar was produced simply to fund the club, but by Year 3 it had started making significant amounts of money, which meant that we could start giving to charity. It was in year 2 that we started targeting the gay market, which lead us in year 3 to make a film of the making of the calendar. Our immediate concern at that time was how to stop it being pirated, and making it a charity project was a way of guilt tripping people into not pirating the film. So in the end the calendar raised funds for the club, and the video was for charity. That’s about to change now though. Instead of donating to other charities, we are in the process of creating our own. Basically all the money now goes into a kitty, which we draw on for charitable objects of this new programme which we are looking at called Sports Allies. Essentially net profits will be spent on the club or on Sports Allies.”

 Moving on to the calendar itself, I mentioned the fact that the photos, particularly in the new 2014 edition, often seem to involve a lot of movement. Was it difficult keeping the photos G rated?

Both men laughed loudly at this.

“It’s a fucking nightmare!” exclaimed Angus. “If you look at the images in years one and two, you will find that all the photos are very static. It’s really Calendar Girls with balls, if you like, but now we’re much more adventurous and doing shots with lots of movement in them, which makes it far more difficult, particularly if you are shooting more than one rower at a time. I shoot 365 gigabytes of images and it can take ages to get that one where nothing is seen. It’s often a case of doing the shot over and over again, and directing them to lift a leg a little higher or something like that.”

I asked if some of the guys were any harder to hide than others (well you would, wouldn’t you?).

“Bluntly, yes. And sometimes it really is a case of saying to someone, just go and stand behind that hedge.”
The film is even more difficult and youtube banned one of their videos, which is why they gave up on youtube altogether. As I’ve had cause to mention before the US can be quite draconian about (particularly male) nudity, and the Rowers have also had problems with their facebook page. Paradoxically, though, they have had lots of interest from the US, where they find it quirky that these guys are naked. Angus believes, and I agree with him, that these large corporations, like youtube and facebook globally have too much control and are imposing a mid-West culture on the rest of us.

However  the American market is huge and people actually flew in from Texas for the live shoot they did last year, which again raised more money for their charitable causes.

The photos certainly have a great sense of fun about them; sexy, but family friendly, and undoubtedly homoerotic. The guys look as if they are enjoying themselves enormously, and all look completely unselfconscious about being naked together. I asked Lawrence if this was actually the case.

Lawrence speaks with a quiet confidence that is very attractive. “Oh yes. We all get on really well. When you train together as long as we do, you do become close. You have to if you’re going to spend 8 hours in a boat together in tight lycra. Getting naked is all part of the bonding process.”

How was it getting your kit off for the first time?

“I had no qualms, but some of the newer guys did at first. However after half an hour everyone is just fine. Angus is really good at making people feel comfortable, and of course we shoot around the boat house so we are also in a familiar environment. Not to mention that the calendar has been going 4 years now, so the more experienced members make it easier for the newer ones.”

I asked if there were any gay members on the team.

“Yes,” said Lawrence, “but it really isn’t an issue. Not in the least. Certainly for me, I’m used to open showers. I went to a boys’ boarding school. Showering and getting naked with the other guys seems the most natural thing in the world to me. And, incidentally, everyone in the team is aware of the support we get from the gay community and we really appreciate it.”

Angus cuts in, “We actually wanted to play on that ambiguity. The boys are having fun. It’s not sexual fun. But it’s fun none the less. Of course there is a homoerotic charge in a group of gorgeous athletes being together naked.  It’s there, and it would be silly to ignore it.”

Last year the proceeds of the film went to the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, and the club will continue to give to the Foundation till the end of this year. I asked why the Ben Cohen Foundation, and had any of the team any personal experience of being bullied.

Angus. “Not that anyone actually revealed, but they immediately saw that Ben’s journey had been similar to theirs. That was the reason why they chose to give money to his charity. It was a combination of nudity and a stance around homophobia, and the guys felt they were making a much more visceral commitment than perhaps even Ben himself. By being completely naked, they were saying, “We don’t care who looks and who enjoys this and we are making a stand and saying we support the gay community.” We had lots of letters and many of the stories came in particular from older men, who wished that something like this had been around when they were young and how much it meant to them. And the guys in the team found that particularly moving.”

Lawrence. “I see it as very important that we straight guys are seen to be standing up and supporting you. I’ve seen “gay” used quite regularly in a pejorative sense – and that’s the most that I witnessed personally, but I think it’s wrong. I’ve also read plenty of moving stories that have been sent to us, one being from a guy in the police force who nearly lost his job because of being gay and him telling us how much he appreciated what we were doing,” and that seemed a good place to wind things up.

 Having seen the images in the new calendar, it certainly seems to me that each year improves on the previous one. It’ll certainly be going on my wall next year.

For more information on the 2014 calendar and film, please go to

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Naked. It's The New Black

Has anyone noticed the recent proliferation of naked clubs taking place in London? Almost any night of the week you can find naked goings on. We have Stripped at the Vault, Buff at the Backstreet, Butt Naked at Central Station, and, of course, SBN at the Hoist. In addition to these, Nudity, a monthly feature at the Union in Vauxhall, is becoming more and more popular, and is especially busy when they have their regular foam parties. These days, if you go to Hard On, there will be a huge number of completely naked guys (more by the end of the evening of course), so what does this mean for the fetish scene? Is it just that naked is so much cheaper than all that leather and rubber?

Admittedly the majority of naked nights are in cruise bars, which are primarily sex clubs, but what is interesting is that the naked scene seems to be taking over from the fetish scene. Guy Irwin, the owner of the Hoist, one of London’s most foremost leather and fetish bars was at one time adamant that he would never do a naked night, but, as interest in the fetish scene started dwindling, he felt he had little choice but to give it a try. Originally just on a Sunday afternoon, SBN (Stark Bollock Naked) became so popular that he now also holds the event in the larger of his two arches on a Saturday night, traditionally his busiest night, and since he made the switch from leather to naked, the club has been packed again. I asked Guy why he thinks naked is now so popular, and he cites numerous reasons, amongst which is the fact that the scene is less underground than it once was. Gay men are less ashamed of who they are, and consequently less ashamed of the sex they have. That they are having anonymous sex in public places, albeit licenced ones, may have much to do with issues of self-esteem on the gay scene, but I’m not sure it has a bearing on why people would choose to do it naked rather than wearing leather, uniform or rubber. Naked certainly makes economic sense too. Investment in leather and rubber is pretty expensive and out of the pockets of many younger guys, particularly those who are still students. No clothes at all certainly takes the worry out of what to wear on a night out. Now even the last bastion of fetishwear clubs, The Backstreet, which once had a very strict dress code, has bowed to pressure and holds three naked events a week.

These clubs, along with Stripped at the Vault and Butt Naked at Central Station are primarily sex clubs, whereas Nudity, which is held once a month at Union in Vauxhall is slightly different. David Jaxx, who runs Nudity, first went into the naked club scene when he co-promoted Starkers, a mixed naked party night, which originally opened in the East End. I remember going myself back in 2004, when it took place in a pub near Columbia Road. Though the club stated it was a club for adults of all genders and sexual persuasions, there was no doubt the majority of the clientele were men, and the majority of them gay or bisexual. Evidently, men enjoy stripping off more than women do. There was a certain amount of sex at the club, though Starkers marketed itself primarily as a social event and not a sex club, and indeed, compared to what you see at most of the other clubs mentioned above, what did go on was mostly just a bit of mild flirting. David’s co-promoter, Jamie, was intent on promoting the club to a straight audience, but with straight attendance falling off, and rarely any women there, David decided to part company with Jamie and start up his own club for men only, and that club became Nudity. Where Starkers eventually fizzled out, Nudity is still going strong, regularly attracting 200-350 naked party goers each month.

Nudity markets itself primarily as a naked dance and social event, where you can have sex if you want, not primarily a sex club. Though there is a lot of sex going on, you’d be surprised to find how many people enjoy dancing and socialising naked too. It’s a really fun night and seems to be becoming more and more popular, attracting a wide range of attitude free guys of all ages and body types. Nudity also holds occasional theme nights, such as naked oil wrestling and naked beach parties, and the foam parties, held just four times a year, are hugely popular, attracting the biggest crowd of all. The last one was on the afternoon of August Bank Holiday Monday. Try it. It’s a lot of fun. Just don’t wear your best trainers on foam party nights.

But what does all this mean for the fetish scene in general? Hard On, which always had a very strict dress code has now opened that up to include sports gear, though the rules here are still fairly strict and are limited to footie gear, baseball, wrestling outfits, jockstraps, rugby or any full sports outfit, trainers only being allowed with the appropriate sports kit. Naked is also allowed, as long as you are wearing boots, and I’ve noticed over the years how many more people are now choosing to go naked at Hard On. Oddly, or maybe not, there are a lot more naked party goers towards the end of the evening than there are at the beginning. Perhaps seeing a few people already naked encourages others to do the same. Full fetish wear now seems to be reserved for occasional events like the once yearly Hotwired, co-promoted by Hard On and Rut, and for special events like London Fetish Week and Folsom Europe in Berlin.

Privately too more and more guys are enjoying partying naked, which is the raison d’etre behind the fairly new site The owner of the site, Mark Routledge, having built up a circle of gaydar mates, who also enjoyed the naked lifestyle, had at one time organised naked parties and night walks via gaydar, but found the site wasn’t really geared up for multiple mail outs or any kind of social networking. Originally he started Nakedmates just as a way of keeping in touch with the contacts he’d made through gaydar, but word got round via social media sites like facebook, and it has evolved from a site of 150-200 members to its current 4000 members, even though the site has never been promoted in the gay press or elsewhere. The site is definitely community based and gives guys who enjoy being naked a platform to arrange naked meet ups, parties and events. Some of these are social, some sexual, some both, but all are very clear about what is on offer. Gay men often feel sidelined on other nudist sites like the now defunct Hangoutnude or truenudists, sites that try to maintain a strictly no sex attitude to social nudity. Nakedmates is more pragmatic, and takes into account that if you fill a room with naked gay and bisexual men, sex is bound to happen at some point, though often party hosts lay down rules which sets one room aside for sex, leaving others free for guests to mingle and socialise, just as at any clothed event.

Personally, I love this new found freedom. I love being naked. I love being naked on the beach, at home and anywhere else it’s acceptable. The more places that open their doors to nudity, the better as far as I’m concerned, and it certainly saves me a fortune in leather. It seems naked really is the new black.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

I'm Getting Naked (again), Folks

In May this year I did something I’d never done before. (Yes I know you must all be thinking there can’t be much left.) I read from my own work at Paul Burston’s Polari, a hugely popular, and wonderfully elegant gay and lesbian literary salon, which takes place at the Royal Festival Hall Conference rooms. Once a month Paul gathers together an array of literary talent, most of them published writers, many of them (like me) not, and gives them a platform for their work. It was a very exciting moment for me and my offering went down extremely well, so next week I’m doing it all again, only this time I’ll be naked.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, Naked Boys Reading is a monthly event at Dalston’s trendy Vogue Fabrics, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Every month, an array of different types, beefcakes, bears, twinks, otters, butch femmes, sissy sluts, boys next door with an exhibitionist streak and lovers of naturism with a well-endowed library, will give in-the-buff readings to an audience of people into books and bodies.

Naked Boys Reading began when producers Alex and Justin wanted a new performance based event at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston. Justin suggested Naked Boys Reading, as a brother to the wildly popular Naked Girls Reading event in NYC (produced by friends of Justin). The event began last September and will be a year old this year!

The idea was to create a queer space where the arts and the erotic mingle - attending to each other in equal measure. The boys are literary buffs, naturists and performers, and they alternate between curated events (upcoming in November is a special curated event by Little Joe Magazine - and performer-chosen themed evenings. Each event covers a broad spectrum of body types and literature - otters, bears, twinks, queers, gender-fuckers, older, younger (18+ obviously!); children's literature, erotica, poetry, spoken word, biography and even a rather hilarious recipe.

This month’s theme is Leather, though there is no injunction to read anything that is specifically concerned with leather, as long as there is somewhere about one’s person or chosen piece a nod in its direction.
So, if you’d like the chance to come and see me naked and in the flesh, come down to Vogue Fabrics in Dalston on Thursday 25 July. It promises to be a fun filled night.
“If love isn’t forever, and it’s not the weather; hand me my leather.” - Tori Amos (1992)

The boys:
Denis Balent
Martin Lisle
Greg Mitchell
Brian Mullin


Sharon Husbands, host-ess
Duchess of Pork, Disc Jock-ess

Thursday 25, July, 2013
8pm (door opens 7:30)
£5 in advance (via
£7 8pm-11pm (night of performance)


Sunday, 14 July 2013

Doing porn - does it eventually bite you in the bum?

In the news this week is the story of young ballet dancer, Jeppe Hansen. Hansen was on a scholarship with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, when he was told there was no longer a place for him, it having been discovered that he had appeared in gay porn movies, under the name Jett Black. Quite how the Royal Winnipeg Ballet officials discovered this has not been revealed, but the company has stated it has policies and procedures in place, that state that any dancer who wishes to partake in ‘side projects’ must gain approval from the school director. I do wonder, though, if the school would have been quite so intransigent if it had been discovered that Hansen was working as a waiter or even dancing in a fringe production of a musical somewhere,
There can be little doubt that it is the nature of Hansen’s ‘side project’ itself that is the problem, not the fact that Hansen, like many students, was doing something extra-curricular to fund his education. The problem appears to be sex, not only sex, but public sex, though we should remember that Hansen was doing nothing illegal. He was just appearing in a movie and getting paid for it. One has to ask if they would have had the same problem, if he’d got a role in a war movie which required him to kill and maim people. No doubt he’d have been given a warning and allowed to continue his studies.

On the other hand it is a little disingenuous of Hansen to refer to the porn he did as art, a statement that only serves to cloud the issue. Though he may have a point, I’d hardly call any of the porn I did art, and, anyway, the whole question of what constitutes pornography, and what erotic art, is probably food for a whole other article. Hansen banging on about his artistic freedom being breached hardly helps, I feel. The issue seems to me much simpler.

I certainly doubt the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s officials wrestled for one moment with definitions of art and pornography. They were just “shocked” and “appalled” that one of their students was having sex on film. But this is where I have a problem with the officials. My reaction to the news was, predictably no doubt, so fucking what? I would imagine he made a lot more money for a few hours’ being filmed having sex than he would have done working as a waiter, and probably had a lot more fun doing it too. Seems to me he was just being inventive. He was given an opportunity and took it.

Am I so completely out of touch with how normal people would react? Not as much as you might think, judging from most of the comments left by readers of the news article in gaystarnews, who all seemed to think the Ballet School over reacted.

As far as I can see, the problems society, and the mainstream media, have with porn are the same ones they have with sex; problems derived from outmoded religious views and the deep seated shame those views create.

Some of you may remember that, a few years ago, The News of the World revealed that Max Mosley enjoyed indulging in a bit of SM sex. Mosley, quite properly considering that what he got up to in his private life was nobody’s business but his own took out a privacy case against the News of the World, which he won, though, by this time, his reputation was in tatters anyway. The law agreed that The News of the World had breached his privacy by revealing his sexual peccadilloes, but it hardly changed people’s attitudes to what he was getting up to. Again, when the story first broke, my attitude was, so what? Why is this even a news story? Is it just that most people’s sex lives are so boring, they can only get vicarious pleasure out of reading about other people’s, and then, of course, condemning them?

On the subject of porn, internet figures suggest that most of us are looking at it, but very few would admit to it. We know that most of the people who have at some time looked at internet porn are men, (8 out of 10, compared to only a third of women), but it’s fair to assume that most of them don’t tell their wives or girlfriends. So, although watching porn is common, it’s still not considered acceptable behaviour, whereas watching movies in which people get blown to bits is. Taking the above figure as the norm, that would suggest that, out of the current 503 male MPs in the House of Commons, we can assume that at least 400 of them have, at one time or another, watched internet porn. These same MPs will publicly voice their concerns about the easy availability of internet porn and talk about ways of stopping it. Ah, how we love dual standards.

Returning to the original question as to whether doing porn can come back and bite you in the bum, then, I am sad to say, that in our present society, the answer is probably yes. In our gay world, doing porn might be becoming more and more acceptable, and indeed more and more gay men are enjoying sex on camera, many being happy to do it just for the thrill, rather than the money, but they really should be careful about who gets to watch it. I suspect many of them would lose their day jobs if their bosses ever found out.  Yes it seems totally wrong to me and I can’t help asking why doing porn can possibly be seen to be a problem for a budding ballet dancer. Are people really not going to go and watch him dance if they know he’s had sex on camera? I suspect the reverse would be true. Oh well, clearly society hasn’t caught up with me yet. So a bit of advice. Unless, like me, you can largely opt out of society, admit to all you have done and refuse to be ashamed, it’s probably best that, for now, you give up the idea of doing that porn movie. Either that or wear a mask.


Sunday, 7 July 2013

Why We Should Always Stay Proud

On the XXL Float Pride 2005
This is an article that was published by TheGayUK just before this year's London Pride. Pride is very important to me, and so I am republishing it here.

The year was 1993. I remember it because it was the year the Gay Slayer, Colin Ireland was embarked on his killing spree, and there had been many warnings for us to take special care while he was still at large. Even so, it had been a perfect day, and as the sun started to set on Brockwell Park with Jimmy Somerville singing the words, “As I watch the sun go down, watching the world fade away”, I had never felt so content, never felt so much that at last, I belonged. This was my first ever Pride and, unbelievably, I was 41.

Not that I had been closeted till then. Far from it, but I had never really fitted in with what I perceived to be gay life or the scene. I had come out as gay fairly late I suppose, at about 27, and, having fallen madly in love with my first boyfriend, whom I had met through work, went straight into a domestic, monogamous relationship. We never went out on the scene and most of our friends were straight. When that relationship finished, I went straight into another that was much the same, and then when that finished, I hardly dare go anywhere at all. AIDS was taking hold and sex became something to fear rather than enjoy. The gay scene terrified me and so I took refuge amongst my straight friends. My life became monastic and I practically gave up sex altogether. Looking back, this could well be the reason I am still around today, but it’s certainly not a time I’d like to live through again. In a way I was denying who I was, denying myself the right to be happy, to be considered the equal of my straight peers; and, actually, I was no better than the likes of David Starkey, who believes the owners of a B&B should be able to deny a room to a gay couple, and Andrew Pierce, who believes that we don’t need equal marriage. Urged on by my ultra Conservative mother, I am ashamed to admit I joined with those who condemned the opening of GLC’s  London Lesbian and Gay Centre, which opened in 1985, another waste of rate payers’ money by Red Ken. This was not my finest hour. I was no doubt suffering from the kind of internalised homophobia I detailed in my article for TheGayUK  earlier this year. You can reference it here.

You’d think that as I worked in an environment where it was ok to be gay (the theatre), I’d have happily embraced my sexuality, and to an extent I did, but I never felt I fitted in with the majority of gay guys in a company, those ultra flamboyant, often screamingly queeny dancers, with their hilariously witty, but often bitchy, repartee, and consequently I distanced myself from them. To be honest, they scared the living daylights out of me, and I tended to mix instead with the straight guys and girls in the company. It was safer to stick with what I knew, even if it meant sometimes tacitly colluding with the occasional unintentional homophobic remark. I wasn’t like other gays, so that made it ok. But of course it didn’t.

I’m not quite sure when all that changed, but, over time, I realised that something was missing from my life. I didn’t truly fit in with any of the people I mixed with. So it was that in 1993 I found myself marching through the streets of London with thousands of other gay men and women, with their families, and with their friends. I was surrounded by men and women from all walks of life, from the flamboyant to the ordinary, from drag queens to soldiers. I couldn’t believe the size of the crowd, and as I looked back down Piccadilly from Hyde Park Corner, my heart swelled with a pride I’d never felt before. I was not alone. At least for one day I could walk through the streets without being afraid of who I was.

I think that was the turning point for me. From that day on I became more involved in the scene and more fully embraced the gay community. I think I’ve attended every London Pride since, and been to a few more around the country. I’ve been involved in Pride in various ways too, from stewarding, to dancing on a float in leather, to gogo dancing in a shop window in Soho and then gogoing in the clubs afterwards. I’ve had a lot of fun, and of course Pride should be fun, but it is also a lot more than that. It is a chance for us to show the world that we are a diverse bunch of people, that we exist in all corners of life. We might be drag queens and leather guys, disco bunnies and dykes on bikes, muscle guys and formation dancers, but we are also policemen and firemen, soldiers and office workers, doctors, politicians and nurses. It is a chance for us to show the world that we are not going away.

 As London  is one of the busiest, most multi-cultural cities in the world, it makes London Pride important on an international level, so that those living in countries less tolerant than ours can see what can be achieved. Urged on by anti-gay religious groups, gay rights are going backwards in most countries in Africa and the middle East. Hardly a week goes by without some new anti-gay law being passed or some new atrocity against the gay community. Things are no better in many Eastern European countries. Russia has just passed more anti-gay legislation, precipitating a wave of anti-gay violence. Even in seemingly enlightened France, there has been an outbreak of violence against gay people since the passing of the equal marriage act. The Catholic Church’s roots obviously go down deeper there than most would have imagined; and if the recent House of Commons and House of Lords debates on equal marriage are anything to go by, there are still plenty of bigoted homophobes in this country, who will go to extraordinary lengths to deny us our basic human rights. There could not be a time when it is more important to stand up and be proud of who we are.

I’ve always believed that Pride should be both a celebration and a political statement, and have never had any truck with those who say all the excessive flamboyance at Pride makes them feel ashamed, the gay homophobes who believe we should play down our differences, who believe that only by attempting to blend in with the straight world will we get the rights we are asking for. Well I don’t hold with that. We should not deny that a large part of our community is made up of wonderfully flamboyant, inventive, artistic, talented and sometimes wacky people. When better to show off our fabulousness?  When the gay community stood up against police brutality at the Stonewall Bar back in 1969, were those drag queens trying to blend in? No. They were demanding their rights as individuals. So the media tends to concentrate on the drag queens and the scantily clad muscle boys. So what?  Being different is not a reason for withholding human rights.

If, like me, you have been to so many Pride events now, that they all start to blend into each other. If you are feeling jaded, or feel that it has nothing to do with you anymore, perhaps you should remember the reasons that Pride is still important, and  that each Pride will always be the first Pride for someone somewhere, that first moment when that person, whatever their age, can feel that they can be who they really are. Take part in the march, or just come down and watch, but, be part of it and be Proud!

Pride London 2013 Review

Well, Pride in London finally arrived, and after last year’s damp squib (World Pride, too, if you remember), it can only be accounted a huge success for the new team in charge. The theme of the parade this year was, rightly, love and marriage, for it won’t be long now before gay men and women will be able to marry their partners, whatever delaying tactics our opponents use. The tide is surely in our favour.

No doubt those opponents were praying for God’s vengeance on us, for, if not fire and brimstone, at least torrential rain to spoil our day, and, let’s face it, given the miserable June weather we had had so far, it wouldn’t have been that surprising. In the event, it seemed God smiled on us. London basked in the first true summer weather of the year. The sunshine brought out the smiles and, with it, one of the biggest and happiest Prides in recent memory. By report this was also the biggest and most heavily attended Pride in 10 years.

My friends and I were marching, leather clad, in the first section of the parade, alongside members of MSC London and Bluff, London’s two most prominent leather and fetish wear organisations. We were followed by the most disarming group of LGBT Filipino dancers, whilst ahead of us were a group of fetish dogs and felines, so there was definitely something for everyone. It is absolutely a tremendous experience to march in the parade, but the only problem is that by marching, you don’t get to see the range of people in the parade, nor get a feeling of just how big it actually is. Years ago, I remember we used to march down Piccadilly, and that was one of the few times you could actually get an idea of the huge size of the event, a truly exhilarating experience. However, there were plenty of photos around on facebook and the like, and some on the net (a wonderful series in The Guardian), that give a great impression of the sheer diversity of our community.

One of the most enjoyable parts of marching, though, is just seeing the thousands of people, gay and straight, lining the parade route, enjoying the spectacle; waves of positivity and love. People with their families and friends, all there to cheer us on. For those who say that Pride is redundant, that we no longer need it, this is their answer, and this is why we need it.

Before the parade started I was chatting to one of the guys selling whistles and rainbow flags, an affable born and bred Londoner.

“You won’t be needing one of these, mate, will ya? Won’t go with your outfit,” he joked.
“Hardly,” I replied.
He then went on chat to me about how important he thought Pride was, telling me about his best friend, who had just come out.
“I think it’s wonderful. He’s marching today for the first time,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important this is for him. I love him, you know. He’s my mate. Makes no difference to me who he fancies. I just hope he can marry some bloke he falls for one day. Have a great day and wave to me wife and kids if you see ‘em. Oh no, you won’t know’em will ya?” he laughed, and went back out into the crowd as I moved off to join my buddies in leather.

No doubt it was unbearably hot for those in full Bluff leather gear. I had shoehorned myself into my leather trousers, but had elected for just a waistcoat and armbands on top. The sun certainly came as a bit of a shock and I ended up with white rings round my arms where the armbands were and white patches on my body where the waistcoat went. Ah well, one has to suffer for one’s art.

The only dissent I witnessed all day was a small bunch of god botherers, waving anti-gay marriage placards. The police had kept them well back and out of the way, and, to tell the truth, nobody, not the revellers, not the marchers, not the spectators, was taking a blind bit of notice of them. You have to wonder why they even bother.

Once the march broke up in Whitehall, we made our way into Soho to see if we could bag a table outside our favourite haunt, Balans Cafe, for some well needed lunch. The management and staff had all dressed up for the occasion, and they all looked fabulous, particularly, Rohan, who has to be my favourite waiter in all of London, looking hot as hell in a hard hat, plaid shirt, denim shorts and boots. Sitting was not exactly easy in my ultra-tight leather trousers, but we attracted a lot of attention in our leather gear, with loads of young men wanting to have their photo taken sitting on my lap. I wasn’t complaining.

As we already had tickets for Summer Rites Pride in the Park, we missed the celebrations in Trafalgar Square, which were apparently superb. I really must get down there next year.

So, having got changed into rather more comfortable shorts and trainers, we arrived at a busy Shoreditch Park at about 6pm for what was an extremely well planned and organised event. Shoreditch Park is just about the perfect size. Not too big and not too small, and, with an incredible selection of no less than 7 Music Arenas, showcasing an array of London's finest DJs and Performers, who were representing some of the cities hottest club brands, there really was something for everyone! Aside from the Music Arenas there were also 5 licensed bars, a Fun Fair and a Community Market. Most importantly bar staff and toilets were plentiful, so there was no real queuing. So often at these events, one ends up spending hours in toilet queues or struggling to get a drink at the bar.

We popped into most of the various tents to see what was going on. They weren’t over busy to begin with. No doubt, it being such a beautiful day, the majority preferred to be outside soaking up the sun, and indeed that is where we found ourselves for the most part, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen for ages. Later on, the dance tents began to get much busier, as revellers soaked up the music, and danced the night away. I was also impressed with how clean the park was. Either, they had an army of cleaners running around, though I never saw any, or people were making sure they dropped their plastic glasses and bottles in the plentiful bins that were provided. Either way, it was refreshing.

By around 9pm, I had had enough. It had been a long day, my legs and feet were killing me and I decided it was time to go home. I had planned to go to the Hustlaball, but I was just too tired to manage it, and ended up having an early night. I’m sure I missed a great night out, but it was nice to wake up at a reasonable hour on Sunday and actually get to enjoy what turned out to be the warmest day of the year so far.

Over the next couple of days I scanned the internet for news of the event, but was rather saddened to see that the mainstream press had largely ignored us. When, a couple of months back, a few crazy Frenchmen turned up in Trafalgar Square to protest equal marriage, the press was full of it, but thousands march through the streets, celebrating the diversity of our community, approvingly egged on by thousands of spectators, both straight and gay, and they completely ignore us. One does have to ask if there is some sort of agenda going on here. As far as I could make out, only The Guardian on line printed a series of photographs of the event. I was surprised to see nothing from our usual ally, The Independent. It was also rather disappointing that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, chose, yet again, not to attend. He pledges his support for the LGBT community, but has, as far as I’m aware, only put in one, rather uncomfortable, appearance. Time to get over it, Boris.

What was not dispiriting is that this year’s event has risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year’s near fiasco, and has been an incredible success. Roll on 2014.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Streisand - Superstar and Gay Icon

Another in the series of gay icons articles for TheGayUK

If a tragically short life is one of the qualifications needed to become a gay icon, then Barbra Streisand fails miserably. 71 this year she has lived, and is still living a richly fulfilling life, both privately and professionally. Only last year her latest movie, The Guilt Trip, was released and she is about to embark on another world tour, and she is still happily married to her husband of 15 years, James Brolin. Many icons (Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean) tragically die young. Others (Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli) survive into old age, despite having disastrous private lives, but there are others (Cher and Madonna would be other examples) who somehow manage to take, and retain, control of their own lives. Maybe that is what makes them such icons.

Born in 1942, Streisand’s rise to fame was positively meteoric. Still only 18, she started out singing at various nightclubs in Greenwich Village, and by the time of her final engagements at the Bon Soir in 1962, she already had amassed an enormous (mostly gay) following. Never one to stick to the rules, her set would be a mix of eclectic songs, ranging from Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” (often her unconventional opener) to her crazy version of “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf”. She always considered herself an actress who sings, rather than the other way round, and in 1962 she made her Broadway debut in the musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” playing the minor role of Miss Marmelstein. Though the show flopped, she garnered great reviews, and around this time she was also signed to Columbia records, with whom she has remained ever since. Even back then Streisand, convinced she would be a star, was only going to be a star on her terms. Her recording contract, unbelievably for a newcomer, gave her complete artistic control over the material she recorded. Her first album gave her the first of her 15 Grammy awards!

Never conventionally pretty, most would have thought her destined for a career in character roles, but she knew that she was leading lady material. Though she was advised to fix her nose, to change her name, she never did, and the only concession she made was dropping the second ‘a’ from her name. Barbara became Barbra. She had a reputation for being difficult even back then, but, it is no doubt her uncompromising belief in herself, that propelled her to stardom.  She knew she was different and she was determined to stay different.

In 1964 she appeared on Broadway as Fanny Brice in the musical “Funny Girl”, and the rest, as they say, is history. When the show became a movie, it was a foregone conclusion that Streisand would be its star, not often the case when a Broadway show becomes a movie. In between Broadway and Hollywood she had played Fanny Brice in the West End production of “Funny Girl”, made three TV specials, the first of which, “My Name is Barbra”, won five Emmy Awards, and even became a mother. (She had married her first husband, Elliott Gould, her co-star in “Wholesale”, in 1963). Inevitably, in 1969 she went on to win her first Oscar for “Funny Girl”. There was no stopping her.

According to the Record Industry Association of America, Streisand holds the record for the most top-ten albums of any female recording artist – a total of 32 since 1963. Streisand has the widest span (48 years) between first and latest top-ten albums of any female recording artist. With her 2009 album, “Love Is The Answer”, she became one of the rare artists to achieve number-one albums in five consecutive decades. According to the RIAA, she has released 51 Gold albums, 30 Platinum albums, and 13 Multi-Platinum albums in the United States.

At the height of her fame, Streisand was the highest grossing female star in Hollywood and the only woman in the top ten box office attractions. Her co-stars have included some of the biggest heart throbs in Hollywood, amongst them Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, Ryan O’Neal and James Caan. She was also the first woman ever to produce, direct, script and star in her own movie.  Never one to suffer fools gladly, she acquired a reputation for being difficult, a bitch and a ball breaker, though she would always aver that, if she were a man, she would simply have been called tough. A perfectionist, she would go over a scene a hundred times if she thought it wasn’t right, and this no doubt contributed to that reputation, though many of her leading men found her a joy to work with.

She and Elliott Gould split in 1971, and post her marriage, she was romantically linked with many high profile figures including the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, Don Jonson and Andre Agassi, before finally settling down with James Brolin, to whom she has been married for the past 15 years. Her unconventional looks never seemed a barrier to her attracting some very attractive men.

Stridently political, she is an outspoken supporter of equal civil rights, which include gay rights. In 2007 she helped raise funds in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Proposition 8 in California. She also has publicly raised $25 million for various organisations, both political and charitable, through her live performances. Her only son, Jason Gould, is gay and she very publicly supported him when he came out. They evidently enjoy a close relationship and, in her most recent tour, he appears on stage with her, singing in duet.

To understand what made so many gay men respond to Streisand in her early years, you really have to listen to some of those early records. Her recording career roughly breaks down into three different periods. In the early stuff, up to around 1969, she sings mostly standard repertoire, songs you might have heard sung by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Julie London, but still puts her own inimitable stamp on them. With the Richard Perry produced “Stoney End” in 1971, she started to sing more contemporary music (she was, after all, only 29), and this change of musical direction broadened her appeal even further. Her most successful album, “Guilty” was a collaboration with Barry Gibb of The BeeGees. In 1985, she returned to her Broadway roots with “The Broadway Album”, which was another massive hit. That said, it marked another change in direction and, in my opinion, none of her subsequent albums has had the impact of her earlier work. They seem to have settled into a more comfortable, middle of the road, easy listening bracket. Her early records may well have been usually found in the “Easy Listening” section of a record store, but listening to Streisand at that time wasn’t always that” easy”. She demands attention. The bitterness with which she spits out the lyrics to such songs as “Free Again” or “Cry Me A River”, the pain and heartache enshrined in her rendition of “My Man”, at the end of the movie of “Funny Girl”, the vocal sparring with Donna Summer in the disco hit “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough”), the way she belts out the Laura Nyro classic “Stoney End”; if you only know Streisand from the stuff she has recorded from the 1990s onwards, then you really need to listen to these classics.

You also need to see the film that made her a superstar, “Funny Girl”. Not far into the film, Streisand sings “I’m The Greatest star”, falteringly at first, then growing in confidence. Believe me, by the time she has finished singing you will have no doubts. Streisand was, still is, and no doubt will be long after she has left us, the greatest star.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Maria Callas; A gay icon who defines the word diva

This month it is vintage month at TheGayUK and this is the first of a series of articles I wrote on gay icons.

There may have been divas before Maria Callas, but there is no doubt that the modern idea of what is a diva owes a great deal to the legendary opera singer, who, without ever singing a note of popular music, was as famous during her lifetime as a movie star. Even today, 46 years after her death and almost 50 years after she last appeared on stage, her records outsell those of any other female opera singer.

Callas was born in 1923 in a New York hospital to Greek immigrant parents. Her mother, bitterly disappointed not to have had a son, wouldn’t even look at Maria for the first few days after she was born. Maria was an awkward, bespectacled, dumpy child with, in her mother’s eyes, one redeeming feature. She could sing. And, from an early age, Evangelia, Maria’s mother, decided Maria would become a star. No doubt here began the seeds of Callas’s burning desire to succeed, and also, what her record producer Walter Legge called, her superhuman inferiority complex. It was only by singing that she could get approval from her mother. It was a tempestuous relationship, and later they had a very public quarrel, leaving them estranged for the rest of Maria’s life.

Callas started out as everyone’s idea of the fat lady who sings, but shed 80lbs to become the svelte, elegant, iconic figure we know today, modelling her look on that of Audrey Hepburn. Some say this weight loss was also the reason for her relatively early vocal decline. Paradoxically, the more famous she became, the more her voice let her down, and her brilliance was relatively short, its peak lasting barely ten years, though as American opera star Beverly Sills once said, “Better 10 years like Callas, than twenty like anybody else.” She created a revolution in the staging of opera too, for Callas didn’t just sing, she could act, and it was her burning desire to fulfil all the dramatic demands of her roles, which was behind her decision to lose weight. To her way of thinking, it was crazy to have a fat, healthy looking soprano supposedly dying of consumption.

From the very beginning she caused controversy. Her voice was not conventionally beautiful, but it was better than that. It was a voice like no other, instantly recognisable with an extraordinarily wide expressive range, which she exploited to searingly dramatic ends. It was a large, dramatic voice too, and yet she had the technique to sing roles usually associated with much lighter voices. Those who just wanted to close their eyes and listen to beautiful sounds were jolted out of their complacency, and they didn’t like it. In her early days she enjoyed showing of her versatility, and within a week she alternated one of the heaviest roles in the repertory (Brunnhilde in Wagner’s “Die Walkure”) with one of the lightest (Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani”). It was a feat unheard of at that time, and she began to be known as the soprano who could sing anything. The traditionalists didn’t like it and battle lines were drawn.

From 1951 until 1958 she was the reigning queen of La Scala, Milan and Luchino Visconti, lured into opera by the prospect of working with her, here mounted some of the greatest opera productions ever in operatic history. It was also at La Scala that she worked with Franco Zeffirelli for the first time, and with conductors such as Victor De Sabata, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein. It was a period of amazing artistic achievement, and tenor Jon Vickers, often referred to Callas as one of the people most responsible for the revolution that occurred in opera after the second world war, rescuing it from the fustian stand and deliver concert in costume it had become, and creating living, breathing theatre. The La Scala audience was never an easy one, and she often had to deal with hostility from them, but, such was her genius, she could usually win a hostile audience over by the end of the evening. She was definitely a fighter.

The Callas myth is very much one made by the media. Her musical genius is often lost amongst the details of her private life and the scandals attached to it. The media concentrates on the occasional cancellations, the rows with opera managements, and often forgets the genius which made her a star.  They build a picture of the capricious, temperamental, demanding opera singer, which, though partially true, tends to ignore the fact that she was intensely professional, dedicated and respected by most of the musicians she worked with. Her outbursts were usually brought about by what she saw as unprofessionalism. Unlike many divas who flounce in, do their bit and flounce out, Callas was often the first to arrive at rehearsal and the last to leave. She lived for her art. That is, until Aristotle Onassis arrived on the scene. Callas stupidly, blindly, fell in love and from that moment the media hardly ever left her alone.

When she met Onassis, she was still married (to a much older man, Gian Baptista Meneghini). Onassis, still married himself, was as taken by her fame as by her beauty and determined to make her his own. Callas, the ugly duckling who became a swan, was flattered by his attention, and became his mistress. She practically gave up her career for him, believing that one day they would marry, until, devastatingly, he married Jackie Kennedy instead. After the affair, Callas did try to pick up the threads of her career, but, along with the growing problems she was having with her voice, much of the fire had gone. In 1965 she made her final appearance in opera in Zeffirelli’s famed production of “Tosca” at Covent Garden.

After that she lived as a recluse in Paris, occasionally attempting to revive her career. She made a non-operatic version of “Medea” for Pasolini, which was not a commercial success, though she received enormous praise for her contribution,  gave a series of master classes at the Juilliard in New York (the basis of Terrence McNally’s play “Masterclass”), and had an unsuccessful attempt at directing, with tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, at the Turin Opera. She was, by this time, having an affair with Di Stefano, and, probably unwisely, agreed to embark on a world concert tour with him, at which they would sing duets and arias, accompanied by piano only. She had only just turned 50, but her voice was a pale shadow of itself. She was only too aware of her shortcomings, and wryly noted how the critics were being much kinder to her, than they were years ago when she was singing brilliantly. Audiences, though, went mad, screaming for more, besieging the stage with floral tributes, as if finally acknowledging now, in her ruin, the great star that she was.

When the tour came to an end, she holed herself up in her Paris apartment. She never stopped loving Onassis, for all that he treated her so badly, and even secretly visited him on his death bed. After he died, it was as if all the fight was knocked out of her. Conductor Jeffrey Tate, who was working with her at this time, (she never completely gave up the idea of a comeback) felt that she simply gave up living.
She died in 1977 at the age of 53 in circumstance that are still unexplained. Officially she died of a heart attack, but she was on so many uppers and downers by then, that some think it may have been an accidental overdose. Whatever it was, dying young certainly contributed to her legendary status.

Nowadays she continues to enthral and inspire, and her influence goes far beyond the opera house. Aside from the aforementioned “Masterclass”, Terrence McNally also wrote a play “The Lisbon Traviata” (taking its title from an at that time unavailable live recording of Callas singing “La Traviata” in Lisbon), which focuses on two of McNally’s pet subjects; gay relationships and the gay man’s love of opera. During her lifetime she was something of a fashion icon, having fabulous gowns designed for her by Milanese designer Biki, by Pucci, Fendi and Yves St Laurent. Not so very long ago Dolce and Gabbana produced t-shirts with her image on them for their 2009 collection, and only last year American designer Zac Posen based an entire collection on costumes Callas wore in Argentina in her early years.

In the world of film her records are frequently used on film soundtracks. Most recently it is the voice of Callas we hear singing “Casta Diva” in “The Iron Lady”, and Gus van Sant used her recording of “Tosca” as a backdrop for much of his brilliant “Milk.” And who could possibly forget that scene in “Philadelphia”, in which Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) attempts to explain to his lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), what opera means to him? As Maria Callas's recording of "La mamma morta" from Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" begins softly in the background and then swells to fill the theatre, Andrew translates the words and conveys the passions and emotional meanings behind this operatic excerpt. “I am divine, I am oblivion, I am love.” No wonder the Italians called her La Divina. After her death, baritone and colleague Tito Gobbi, said “I always thought she was immortal, and she is.”

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Clubs We Have Loved and Lost - A Personal Recollection

You no doubt think I’m a bit old to be going clubbing these days, and you’re probably right (though actually I only hung up my gogo jock last year), but there was a time when I was out every weekend, and it was not uncommon for me to visit three or more clubs in the space of a weekend. I won’t deny that this marathon was only achieved with a certain amount of chemical assistance, nor that my memories of it are now somewhat blurred. I do remember, however, that I had a fantastic time.

I was a bit late coming to the club scene, and this reminiscence is very much from a personal point of view, so apologies to all those clubs I’ve missed out. For much of my twenties and thirties, I thought clubbing rather frivolous, and, to be honest, I had very few gay friends. Consequently I rarely hit the scene. There were occasional visits to Heaven (very different from it is now, and, in those days, more reminiscent of the set for a 70s porn movie, with a couple of pool tables in the bar. I’m pretty sure it was men only when it first opened), but that was about it, and also to Bang, which was held in the same club in Charing Cross Road, where G.A.Y got started.  G.A.Y itself became a huge success for Jeremy Joseph and eventually moved into the Astoria (I once appeared there in the musical “Grease”) until the Astoria was pulled down to make way for Crossrail.  For a long time Heaven and G.A.Y. (odd, then, that Heaven is now home to G.A.Y.)  were the only clubs I really knew about and stories I’d heard about the likes of Trade terrified me. All that changed when I took my first E. I was in my 40s, would you believe. Maybe I’d been thinking life was passing me by, maybe the landmark decade was to blame, but one weekend a friend and I decided that we were going to try E, and that was the beginning, or the end, depending on how you look at it. I remember we went to Love Muscle at the Fridge in Brixton. Love Muscle was a raunchy gay night, which first opened at the Fridge in 1992, and ran pretty much every Saturday night till 1998. After that Love Muscle nights became increasingly infrequent, till it stopped altogether, though it did have one brief revival on 31 December 2008. It doesn’t figure hugely in my club going, but there is no doubt that for many years it was enormously successful, and I know many who have great memories of it. Brixton was always just that little bit too far away for me, and, truth to tell, by the time I discovered clubbing, Love Muscle’s heyday was (just) over.

So, a perfect weekend for me those days would probably have started at Crash on a Saturday night. Very occasionally I’d have made Fiction at the Cross on a Friday, but that would have made for an even longer weekend than usual, and even I had my limits, so Crash in Vauxhall (now Union) it would be. Back in those days there was very little else in Vauxhall – no Fire, no Area, no Bar Code, no Chariots, and the only other gay venue was The Hoist. Vauxhall was not the gay mecca it subsequently became. Crash (promoted by Wayne Shires) was dark, sexy and underground, and was where international DJ, Tom Stephan first made his mark. This was not elegant, sophisticated clubbing. This was a place to get down and dirty, though it wasn’t a sex club, and there was no play area. At its peak it would be rammed with sexy, shirtless men, grinding away to the tribal sounds for which it was famous. I managed to acquire one of the highly prized black membership cards (don’t ask me how), which gave me and a guest free entry and queue jump on any night. I’d just march down to the front of the queue, flash the card, and I’d be allowed straight in. Ah, those were the days!

They were also the days when promoters, though in competition, would be careful not to tread on each other’s territory, and would often collaborate in the realisation that they each fed each other. It was this happy state of collaboration, which allowed clubbers to buy their tickets for Trade at Crash before making their way to Clerkenwell to continue their night. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, Trade’s home, Turnmills, was literally only a couple of minutes’ walk from my flat, which meant that I could go home, freshen up, and amble over to Trade just as the queues were dying down, and by which time the club would be in full swing. Infamous, notorious Trade is a name that even younger clubbers will no doubt recognise. The first after hours in London, it was started by Lawrence Malice back in 1991, when the only way it could get a licence was by providing food, which it did in the upstairs café. It was not licenced to sell alcohol, though the resourceful could usually find a way of acquiring it, and till very late in its residency at Turnmills, used to officially only sell soft drinks, and also tea and coffee in the upstairs café. Mind you, who needed alcohol to carry on dancing through Sunday morning. Everything you’ve ever heard about Trade is probably true, the drugs, the muscle boys in the fittingly christened Muscle Alley, the trannies. Madonna was even known to put in the occasional appearance. Simon Patrick, who was manager from 1995 till 2008, recalls one occasion when he was called over to the platform that overlooked the dance floor by a bouncer, with the nickname of “The Mortician”. Simon looked out over the dancers wondering what it was he was looking for. “Just wait,” said the Mortician, and, sure enough, after a few minutes a lone female figure leapt up out of the crowd, visible for just long enough to be identifiable as Bjork.

From a single room, when it first opened, Trade expanded until every square inch of the building was in use, including Gaudi, the restaurant. And indeed Gaudi was the reason for the intricate iron work on the staircases and the colourfully tiled bathrooms. Another of its famous features was the installation of the awe-inspiring lasers somewhere around 1994. As Crash faded, Trade would become my first club of the weekend. I would have an early night on Saturday and get up early on the Sunday morning. My friends would all come over for a quick breakfast, usually just a coffee and a pill, and off we would go, fresh and rested and raring to party. We would descend into its caverns, as others would pass on their way to church, hearing only the thud of the music and noting the steam escaping from the air vents. No doubt a they would consider it hell. To us it was paradise.

The Trade sound became famous worldwide, and many DJs made their name there, principal amongst them being Tony de Vit, who tragically died of AIDS related bronchial failure in 1998. Other names associated with Trade, include Smokin Jo, Pete Wardman, Alan Thompson, Malcolm Duffy, Gonzalo, Steve Thomas and Lisa German.

However, when Beyond opened at the Colosseum, Trade revellers began to drift away. Maybe the the desire for hard house was coming to an end. I do recall one morning, sitting on the stairs chatting to a good friend of mine, and becoming aware of the racket emanating from the DJ booth. “What the hell are we doing here?” he said, “That’s not music.” Whatever the reasons, its popular peak was over and Trade ceased its weekly residency at Turnmills in 2002, though it continued to put on occasional one off parties, which were invariably packed out. Then it was announced that Turnmills would close its doors forever in 2008. Trade would hold its last ever event there in March. Its fame was so widespread that people came from all over the world to bid farewell to the club they had so many great memories of. I was there with all my old friends, of course, and, though we had determined to stay until the last record was played, by about four in the afternoon we were exhausted and had to leave. Pete Wardman played the final track ever to be played at Turnmills, (Schoneberg by Marmion) at 5.45pm on 16 March 2008.

A group of friends at the Last Dance at Turnmills

Trade continues to stage occasional events in various different venues, but for me, as for so many others, Trade is Turnmills, now just a pile of rubble prior to the building of a new office block. I feel a twinge of regret each time I pass it.

There are others I remember fondly of course, like Salvation, once monthly on a Sunday evening at the suavely sophisticated Café de Paris, Action at what is now known as the Renaissance Rooms, Thursday night’s Discoteq at The End, Factor 25, which, if memory serves me right, changed venues and nights quite a few times, and a few others whose names escape me, but there is one that, for me, reigned supreme.

On a Sunday night in November 1999, the usually quiet area around Smithfield market was besieged with crowds of people queuing to get into a new club. New super club Fabric had opened a week or two before, and the queue on this Sunday night snaked all the way from the front door of the club to Farringdon tube station. For weeks the gay papers had displayed two page ads with the single word Addiction, but the word on everyone’s lips was DTPM. DTPM (which stood for Demens Trelirium Post Meridien) had originally opened on an afternoon in April 1993 at Villa Stefano in Holborn, and was started by promoter Lee Freeman to cater to the clubbers leaving Trade, who wanted to carry on partying. As the club became more popular, it moved to Bar Rumba in May 1994 and then to The End in January 1995, when it also moved to an early evening time slot. When it finally left its residency at The End, there was a three month hiatus before it re-opened at Fabric, this time as a late club (10pm to 5am). Lee had filled the three month void with expectation, and, in all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a night filled with such excitement and buzz. Fabric was still brand new and there seemed to be a problem with security that night, as we had to wait for a long time before finally being admitted, and only then after a group of suited men carrying clipboards were seen to leave the building. Once inside, though, we were thoroughly amazed by what we saw. This was a huge venue, expensively and glamorously decked out. There were three rooms, each with its own sound system and featuring a vibrating floor in Room One: known as a "bodysonic" dancefloor, sections of the floor are attached to 400 bass transducers emitting bass frequencies of the music being played. Many people shook their heads, opining that the club wouldn’t last, the venue was too big, there wouldn’t be enough people to fill it weekly on a Sunday night, especially as it went on till 5 in the morning. Well they couldn’t have been more wrong. DTPM’s run at Fabric lasted an amazing, incredible 8 years. I should know, I spent almost every Sunday night down there for every one of those years! I suppose its proximity to where I lived was my downfall. Sunday evenings could be so boring, and, however much, I might tell myself that I was going to stay in, come 10pm, my resolve would disappear. “Maybe just for a couple of hours,” I’d tell myself, but invariably I’d find myself stumbling home at five in the morning, usually with some young thing in tow.

So what was it that made DTPM so special? Well it was a combination of all the elements coming together to create that total experience. First and foremost among them, as also with Crash and Trade, was the music, something that too many promoters seem to forget these days. Many of DT’s DJs, such as Smokin Jo, Alan Thompson and Steve Thomas were also Trade stalwarts, but the music they played at DT was very different, deep and funky. There was planning to the music too, so that, by the end of the night, you felt you had been on a journey. Room one was my favourite haunt and a perfect evening would find me getting in the mood with Miquel Pellitero, flying with Alan Thompson and finally getting on down with Steve Thomas. When Alan Thompson left to live in Sydney, DTPM took a while to settle down and fill that middle slot, but eventually Mark Westhenry was a great replacement. So, having got the venue and music right, the rest was down to attracting the right crowd. From day one, Lee had stressed that the club was polysexual, not gay or straight, but anything you wanted it to be. Though the vast majority of clubbers were gay, there was a good cross section of all types. I remember an elegantly dressed woman, who used to come down with her son and all his gay friends. Plenty of big names attended too, amongst them George Michael, Robbie Williams, Jason Orange, Rupert Everett and Liza Minnelli of all people. The fabulous Kerry, who at one time, controlled traffic in the downstairs loo like a sergeant major, tells a story of one famous diva (I can’t of course mention names) who turned up with a deal of pomp, fuss and ceremony at the front entrance, only to be carried comatose out of the back one five minutes later.

On bank holidays and other special days, the club would stay open until seven in the morning, and, even then, the place would still be packed, until the last song had played out, the crowds applauding and screaming for more. In the notes accompanying the second DTPM CD release, celebrating 10 years of DTPM, Lee Freeman stated,

The hard core of customers are very loyal and come back regularly, receiving a warm welcome from the long-standing staff and promoters, who take a genuine and personal interest in the club. A family has been created and this is a large contributing factor, which has helped to sustain the success of DTPM.

I guess I was one of those hard core customers, and they certainly made you feel welcome. I became a member a couple of weeks after their first night at Fabric and remained one until they eventually left. Membership was well worth it too. For a very reasonable annual fee, you got reduced entry, four free tickets on your birthday, and, most prized of all, queue jump. I remember asking which queue I should join on the first occasion after becoming a member. “You don’t,” said Mark, aka Edna, “You just present your card at the barrier and security will let you straight in.” I can’t tell you how valuable that was. At its peak, even on a normal Sunday, the queue for entry used to snake round the building towards Farringdon station. It may seem hard to believe now that a Sunday club could attract that many people, but it did, I can assure you.

Eventually though, and, like all good things, it came to an end. There were many reasons for its demise. The drugs people used changed and the club, which had always had a very relaxed attitude, had to become more vigilant. Hardly surprising when clubbers were regularly passing out on GHB and GBL, and ambulances were often seen outside the venue. Also a certain promoter had decided that rather than join in the general air of collaborative rivalry that existed between promoters, he would do his utmost to kill them all off. His tactics worked and personally I think the club scene became the poorer because of it. 

DTPM tried a couple of revivals (I remember a particularly fabulous New Year’s Day party at the Café de Paris), but its heyday was over and it seems safe to say that DTPM is now just part of history, particularly as Lee Freeman now has a new (and very successful) project, The Kennington gastro pub in Oval.

With the demise of Trade and DTPM, my clubbing days virtually came to an end. If I do go out these days, it will probably be to XXL, which seems to defy the passage of time, and is now doing better than ever in its fabulous new home, Pulse, or I will go to Hard On, run with burning zeal and energy by its indefatigable promoter Suzie Krueger. Suzie is without doubt a survivor. She started Hard On’s forerunner, Fist, back in February 1994. Fist was a strict fetish club; leather, rubber, uniform – no trainers or jeans (unless worn under chaps), and that rule persists to this day. With a huge play area, the club has never made any secrets about the crowd it is attracting, though you might be surprised to find out how social it can be. Not everyone goes to have sex. Many just enjoy the dressing up. Unfortunately the homophobic local police managed to get Fist closed down in January 2002. Unfazed, and determined not to be beaten, Suzie started a new club called Hard on, in September 2003, at Cynthia’s, a swingers’ club in London Bridge. This time it was strictly members only, and it was not possible to join on the door. Applications had to be received in advance. Probably an administrative nightmare, but somehow she managed it and the first night was absolutely packed. Since then the club has moved around a bit, enjoying a 5 year run at Hidden in Vauxhall (a nearby church managed to get Cynthia’s closed down). It is now very comfortably housed in Union, formerly Crash, also in Vauxhall and, if my last visit is anything to go by, is enjoying something of a revival. When Hard On left Hidden, its clientele seemed to be shrinking, but recently the club has been packed again. In addition to the leather, rubber, uniform code, sports kit is now allowed (though not just trackie bottoms) and this may have contributed to bringing in a younger crowd. What’s more, when I was there last week, the music (provided by DJs Brent Nicholls, and Hugo’sland) was pumping, the crowd were social and friendly and the bar and dance floor just as busy as the play areas. All in all it was a great night, so it is good for me to be able to end on a positive note, with a club we have loved and still love; Hard On!