I sometimes think my life is turning into a surrealist sitcom. Take today, for instance. Today was supposed to be a boring day. I decided to go for an aimless trip into Central London – train to London Bridge and take it from there.
And so I strolled through the city, eventually coming to the West End. Alas, as my blood is approximately 30% caffeine, I experienced at this point a call of nature, and so ventured into the nearest public convenience. As anyone with experience will tell you, gentlemen’s toilets are a place of unimaginable horror at the best of times. I hadn’t factored in an additional point, namely that we were in Soho. Yes, I was about to have an awkward experience.
So I walked down, and noted that all the urinals were occupied. Well, West End, early Saturday evening, that’s not too unusual. I figured I’d wait. It seemed to me that the gentlemen present seemed to be having some difficulty urinating. Actually, one chap was having so much difficulty urinating that the chap at the next urinal was having to help him. The penny only dropped when I noticed one of the chaps trying to look me in the eye. The expression on his face was not dissimilar to the sort of thing you see on the faces of potential housemates you’ve never met before. Friendly, open and yet slightly cautious.
Now, let me explain the rules of Man Etiquette when it comes to using the urinals. You do not take the urinal next to one already occupied unless there are no others available. You do not talk to the person next to you unless you know them. You look straight ahead. Shake once, zip up, wash your hands, leave.
So to see so much flagrant disregard for these sacred laws, coupled with the almost total lack of urination going on, suggested that I had wandered in on something a bit more – what’s the word? Gay.
And it’s here that we get into the murky history of cottaging. Cottaging, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is basically gay sex in a public lavvy. “Cottaging” derives from the polari word “cottage,” which refers to the fact that many public toilets, particularly in the London suburbs, were designed to look rather cottage-like. Indeed, one on Twickenham Green has actually been converted into a delightful little tea room, and others often find similar uses.
Simply put, when homosexuality was illegal, cottaging was the only way one could be openly gay. Up to a point, I mean. Even in this setting, one had to be careful, and systems of signals developed for those in the know. The public toilet came to have a special place in gay culture, and attendants at the dunnies in Victoria and South Kensington stations noted some actually quite poignant love poetry scrawled on the cubicle walls.
Of course, the police quickly cottoned on that this was happening. In the 1950s, possibly as a result of the postwar atmosphere of the time, there was a huge drive to round up these awful, awful gays who were no doubt undermining our society and helping to cause earthquakes and things (actually, in 1750, the Bishop of London genuinely did blame a recent tremor on sodomy, which brings a whole new meaning to the question, “Did the earth move for you?”)
However, while the opinion of the high-ups was that this evil homosexuality had to be stamped out at all costs before it caused the 1960s to happen, there’s evidence to suggest that the rank-and-file police actually weren’t all that interested. How they felt about homosexuality itself is unrecorded, but certainly several of them felt that it was a bit of a waste of time, hanging around in public lavvies on the offchance that they could do someone for the ill-defined crime of “gross indecency.” One complained that he was having to spend so long in the gents that his cigarettes tasted of bleach.
Whatever their feelings about the duty, they don’t appear to have been under-zealous when it came to actually making arrests. Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Wilfrid Brambell were among those who got into trouble for the practice. History does not record whether the officer in the latter arrest referred to Brambell as a “dirty… hold… maaaan!” Let’s pretend he did.
Though homosexuality is today legal, the practice is still popular, probably because it’s a bit kinky and a bit dirty. Let’s face it, some people will do anything for a thrill. And if you’re in the closet, it’s a nice way to get your rocks off without having to tell ‘er indoors what’s going on. Hence George Michael’s notorious 1998 arrest.
None of this was of any use to me, though. On reflection, it should have been obvious that this was a place where middle-aged men gathered to wank each other off – there were prominent signs warning about CCTV monitoring, and there were narrow barriers between the urinals (which didn’t seem to be stopping the helpful gentleman mentioned earlier – I should imagine you could locate him by his bruised wrist). I mean, what is the etiquette in this situation? Do you pretend you haven’t noticed? Turn around and walk out? I mean, I really did need a wee. I texted Hurricane Jack for advice – he’s not part of the whole cottaging scene, but I figured that as a gay man he might be more familiar with the practice than I am. In the end, I decided to go with the tried and tested method of just saying, “Look, is anyone here actually having a piss?” Cue the somewhat amusing sight of four red-faced men suddenly trying to wee when they don’t actually need to, then swiftly filing out.
A little later I was accused of being a Terminator, and – but I mustn’t say any more, or I shall spoil the next story.
If you enjoyed this
You may wish to come and see the play I’m in. I promise it features no mutual masturbation of any kind.
Turns out I’m not the only one this has happened to.