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! 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Prostitution - the last taboo?

This month’s issue is the Vice Issue and, if I appear to have been quiet for a while, it’s because I’ve been away indulging my passion for sunbathing in Cape Town (probably a vice) and my addiction to chocolate over Easter (definitely a vice). I was also taking a holiday from my main job, which some would no doubt claim is the biggest vice of all. I work as a tantric masseur, which could well be considered the more legitimate end of prostitution (certainly there are many sites which will not accept a massage ad, which gives any indication that the massage might be sexually pleasurable), and before that I worked as an escort.

It seems to me that, even in our more sexually charged world, a world that increasingly accepts sex as a part of life, prostitution is one of the last, great taboos. There are people out there selling all sorts of services, from cleaning to baby-sitting to dog walking, so, if you happen to be good at sex, then why not offer that as a service? Presumably the reason prostitution is such a taboo goes back to most religions viewing sex as a sin, but though more and more people would no longer subscribe to that opinion, prostitution, or selling sexual services, is still frowned upon. Are there double standards going on here? For instance, society still seems to have problems with women who view themselves as sexual beings. Why is it, for instance, that a man who has multiple sexual partners is considered a stud, but a woman a slut? Feminists, too, often have problems with other women who admit to a high sex drive, and often refuse to believe that there are women who choose to work in the sex industry, even when confronted by someone like Dr Brooke Magnanti, the woman who created the blog Belle De Jour, which was, in turn, based on her experiences as a high class call girl. Believe me, there are plenty of others out there, but they go unnoticed, whilst the media concentrates on the problems of trafficking, coercion and drugs.

This dichotomy exists in the gay world too. There are plenty of gay men out there, who spend their lives frequenting sex clubs and bars, having anonymous sex with multiple partners, often more than one in a single night, and that is accepted as just part of the gay scene. Many of these men are completely indiscriminate as to whom they end up having sex with, and yet they will look down their noses at anyone who chooses to accept payment for sex. “How can you have sex with someone you don’t fancy?” they will say, though they’d be perfectly happy to join in with a group session in a sex club, with scant regard as to who else was in the group. You can’t tell me they went through a strict vetting process beforehand.

When I first started escorting, it kept me very busy, and I might easily have had sex with 15 to 20 men in a single week. Yet a friend who once told me that I was the least promiscuous gay man he knew. He had a point. If I wasn’t working, I was, and still am, extremely choosy. Maybe it’s because it can too easily just seem like work, but I digress.

Now I know of many other gay men, who have, at one time or another, worked as an escort. These men have perfectly normal day jobs, whether it be in IT, law or whatever, but of course they keep it completely secret. When asked, you would never be likely to hear them say, “Oh I work in IT, but I also do a bit of prostitution on the side.” Aside from the fact they’d likely get sacked, working as a prostitute or an escort still isn’t acceptable. Mind you, in the straight world, nor is sex outside of a stable relationship, which, come to think of it, could be one of the problems some heterosexual men still have with gay men.

Actually, rather than society becoming more comfortable with prostitution, the reverse is happening. At present there is a Bill before the Scottish Parliament, (brought by MSP Rhoda Grant) that would seek to follow the Swedish model by making it illegal to purchase sex. I believe they are also considering this model for the rest of the UK. This law seeks to make the client into a criminal. Rhoda Grant recently stated in the Glasgow Evening Times, “People that use prostitutes are people who would rape and abuse," a statement that is utterly false and completely inflammatory. An article by sex worker, Laura Lee, in Independent Voices on Friday April 5th, seeks to refute these myths, but is anyone listening? http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/men-buy-sex-for-many-reasons--as-a-sex-worker-i-can-tell-you-they-dont-deserve-to-be-criminalised-8562185.html and it’s well worth reading.

Closer to home, I will typically find, when talking about sex, that a gay man will say something along the lines of, “I’d never use an escort. I don’t have to,” the implication being, that they are too sexy, good looking, young or whatever for them to even consider the services of a sex worker. Well, let me tell you, there are many reasons a guy might choose to see an escort, and usually it has very little to do with the way they look. Most are just average guys, the kind of guy you might have winked at in a bar, and some of the ones I’ve seen have been downright gorgeous. Admittedly, there are a few who look better with the lights out, but for the most part, they are just ordinary guys.

In Linda’s article, cited above, she gives a few examples of the kind of client she might see. Let me add a few more.

1.       He’s in a long term relationship. He still loves his partner, but his partner doesn’t enjoy the same sort of sex he does. Seeing an escort is far safer than picking someone up on the internet or in a bar. His partner is far less likely to find out about it, and the escort is far less likely to turn into a bunny boiler.

2.      Maybe he’s disabled in some way. We do tend to forget the physical needs of the disabled, as if a disability should condemn someone to a life time of celibacy. One of my clients, a sweet and gentle man, had lost both his legs in an accident. Sex wasn’t easy for him, but it was possible and he still had needs. Much better to use the service of a professional.

3.      . This is one of the most surprising, but it happens. A young guy, who wants someone with a bit of experience to each them a few things. I wrote an article about one such experience for my blog. Take a look http://www.thegregmitchell.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/even-i-can-be-surprised-old-journal.html

4.      . The businessman in town for a couple of nights. He has a limited amount of time and doesn’t want to waste it hanging around in bars or trying to find someone on Grindr or Scruff (you know how time consuming that can be). Answer, call an escort. Even better, make the booking before you arrive in town. You may be surprised to hear that many book in advance.

5.      .  Those who want to have sex with that particular escort; probably because they’ve seen him in a movie (escorting and porn often go together).

6.     .  Someone who wants to explore and indulge a particular fetish. Believe it or not, it can be safer to explore this with an escort, someone who has a website and umpteen ads on various sites, than someone who is a complete unknown.

Do we really wish to criminalise these men? Absolutely not, nor should the State be interfering in what is, after all, a transaction between two consenting adults. It’s my contention that the problems of trafficking, drugs and coercion could more easily be dealt with by decriminalising and regulating the industry, rather than creating more bands of legislation and driving the industry further underground. It’s called the oldest profession in the world for a reason, and it’s time that our attitudes to both sex and the sex industry became more grown up.