Category Archives: Soho

To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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Filed under 18th century, Bloomsbury, Booze, Camden, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Film and TV, History, Literature, London, Markets, Shopping, Soho, The City, Weird shops, West End

A League of their own

Now, get any group of comic book fans together and ask them which comic creator still living has had the greatest influence on the medium, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. My own answer would be Alan Moore. The only creator I can think of who’s had a comparable influence would be Stan Lee, but there’s a certain amount of dispute over the extent to which he “created” many of the characters credited to him.

Alan Moore, basically, has changed the face of comics. You may not know the name, but he was responsible for writing (among many other things) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and – most famously of all – Watchmen. The latter, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, took the superhero genre in a darker, more adult direction from which it has never returned – although none of the imitators has had quite the same success as those two.

My personal favourite of his works is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,  which is rather more fun than some of the works for which he’s best known. The basic concept is that every character within the fictional universe of this comic is from a pre-existing work of fiction. In the first volume, for instance, Mina Murray (from Dracula), Allan Quartermain (from King Solomon’s Mines), Dr Jekyll, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man form a team under the supervision of James Bond’s grandfather and foil a gang war between Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. In the second, they participate in the events of War of the Worlds with the assistance of Dr Moreau and the father of the Wolf of Kabul. You get the idea. The number of works alluded to is immense, and much of the fun of the series comes from looking through to see how many allusions you can spot. Many of these come from artist Kevin O’Neill, whose manic and highly-detailed panels overflow with incidental characters and background references.

So you may imagine my excitement when I heard that the newest volume was due to be published and, not only that, but Moore and O’Neill were doing a signing in London at Gosh! Comics. Gosh! is, to my mind, about the best comic shop in London. It emphasises unusual and indie stuff,  and judging by the calibre of some of the creators they’ve had in to do signings (Gilbert Shelton and Dave McKean among them), it seems to be pretty well-respected. It’s based in Bloomsbury, but is about to up sticks to Berwick Street in Soho.

Yesterday, Succubusface, Izzi and I went up to indulge our inner geek at the signing. As you might imagine, if you know anything about comics culture, the event was huge. Succubusface nobly arrived an hour early and bagged us a spot – even so, we were queued right around the building. The line snaked considerably further than that, and God only knows how long the last fans in the queue were waiting. We were in line for several hours, in fact. We’re just that cool.

Eventually we got in. Now, you read interviews with Alan Moore, he comes across as a very grumpy man. He’s had public fall-outs with movie studios and comics publishers alike and is not afraid to express his feelings – combined with the often eclectic and obscure nature of his comics, the impression one gets is that he’d be this huge intimidating monster who’d have you thrown out for saying that you’d even seen the movie of V for Vendetta. And Kevin O’Neill’s scratchy, intense style leads one (well, me at least) to expect some sort of insane, wide-eyed boho who talks only in a stream of consciousness and reserves the right to bite you at any time.

This is Alan Moore.

Actually, they were both lovely. Very obliging, very willing to chat – Succubusface had a brief discussion with O’Neill about researching his artwork. The overall impression I got was that while Moore has his disputes with a lot of the men-in-suits, he has plenty of time for his genuine fans. Which is awesome. We left thoroughly pleased with our signed purchases.

The volume I was there to get was Century: 1969. Century is, officially, the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although in practical terms it’s actually the fourth (Black Dossier, basically a series of supplemental material for the League universe framed by a shortish story, was published before Century but is not counted). It’s being published in three parts and is, as the title implies, a story spanning the twentieth century. In the first part, 1910, the League – now consisting of Mina, Allan, Raffles the Gentleman Thief, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – attempts to foil an occult scheme by Aleister Crowley-analogue Oliver Haddo (of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician) and find themselves caught up in the events of The Threepenny Opera. In 1969, Haddo’s scheme resurfaces in Swinging London, where he has enlisted the help of Turner (from Performance) and Tom Riddle. Organised crime, the hippie movement, pop music and the occult clash, with the remains of the League and Jack Carter investigating the murder of Molesworth’s Fotherington-Tomas.

It’s been a long wait for this second part, but again, I feel it was worth it. Following Century, which often felt obscure to the point of self-indulgence in Yr. Humble Chronicler’s opinion, Century is a return to the kind of storytelling that made the first two volumes so enjoyable. While it’s not essential that you know that, e.g., this character is from The Long Firm or that character is from Round the Horne in order to understand the story, it adds immensely to your enjoyment if you do. Cameos abound, with such diverse personalities as the Second Doctor, Andy Capp and Dame Edna Everage all putting in background appearances.

The characters, particularly Mina, are developed and expanded in Moore’s usual thoughtful fashion – the implications of the characters’ extended lifespans (long story if you’ve not read the previous volumes) are considered in some detail, but without the irritating navel-gazing that bedevils many comics that try to be mature. There are lots of callbacks to previous episodes and, knowing Moore, plenty of elements that will become significant in the next.

The art, too, is up to Kevin O’Neill’s usual high standards. As I mentioned, his style is very weird, so much so that the Comics Code Authority banned it simply because they found it too freaky. 1969, which contains many psychedelic and generally bizarre sequences which allow him to unleash his full freakiness. I don’t think there’s another artist who could have done this quite as much justice as he.

Overall, it’s a worthy addition to the League canon, and I look forward to 2009 eagerly.

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Filed under Arts, Bloomsbury, Current events, Literature, London, Occult, Shopping, Soho, Weird shops

The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

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Filed under Booze, Film and TV, Flora and Fauna, Kensington, London, Museums, Plants and animals, Randomness, Soho, tourism, West End

Would you Adam and Eve it?

There’s a quote by P. G. Wodehouse that I think sums up my situation today. It goes thus:

I was left in no doubt as to the severity of the hangover when a cat stamped into the room.

Despite a substantial breakfast at the excellent Mike’s Café in Notting Hill (in my not inconsiderable experience, the severity of the hangover increases with the amount of time it’ll take you to get home), despite a long nap, despite having as many painkillers as is considered sensible for a person to have, it’s still with me. I choose to blame everyone except me. Particularly those damn bar staff, forcing me to buy Jägerbombs by having them there, all for sale and that.

Hold, let’s rewind and examine how I got into this situation in the first place. Along the way we will learn about some interesting bars in the West End.

You see, a friend is over from Germany, and therefore Becky B suggested a trip to the Adam and Eve in Fitzrovia. I was a little suspicious of the place (it describes itself as being based in “Noho” rather than Fitzrovia, a forced neologism that sets my teeth on edge) but was willing to bow to Becky’s recommendation. When I got there, the others were late. Curious, I asked the barman where the reserved table was. He said there was no such reservation. This was strange to me. I got a call a little later from Seb saying that they had arrived and had an entire area reserved. Now, okay, possibly the barman wasn’t aware.

However, the bar staff continued to fail to impress for the rest of the evening. One of them seemed very angry at my chums for showing up late – well, granted, it’s not great if we’re late for a reservation, but this fellow was complaining that they had turned people away because they were expecting us on time. Now, this was, I’m sorry to say, utter bollocks. The place was half empty, which for a bar off Oxford Street is amazing. If they were turning people away, that was stupid of them. And if it was really such a problem to keep the place reserved and empty, they could have un-reserved it. In either case, it’s not considered the done thing to berate your customers in such a fashion.

Another member of staff also complained to some of our chums having a smoke outside that the other staff had got the ashtrays messed up, which again is not the done thing in a customer service environment – it reflects badly on the venue as much as on any individual.

The place stopped serving at 10.30. This is strikingly early for a pub, particularly in the West End, but it’s their venue I suppose. Except that one of our party went up to get a round of drinks at 10.20 and was told that he couldn’t. When we went to investigate this strange state of affairs, for we had received no indication of last orders, the barman (the same one who told me they didn’t have our reservation) said, and I quote, “What’s in it for us if we do serve another round?” The correct answer to such an insolent question from a bartender is, “By god, you whelp of a diseased whore, I don’t know whether I’m more inclined to whip you for your impertinence or your master for his negligence, you will fetch me my drink or feel the toe of my boot up your backside!” but I restrained myself.

We did, with no end of complaints from the staff, get our drinks in the end. If it was really such an issue, they should simply have not served us. To serve us and complain and give us lip is quite beyond the pale. In conclusion, the Adam and Eve is shit.

Fortunately, Becky had an ace up her sleeve, and we went on to a basement cocktail bar on Rathbone Place rejoicing in the unusual name of Bourne and Hollingsworth. This was much more up my street. It’s a small venue, the preferred term I think is “intimate,” and the decor is very eclectic. More than one reviewer (and a member of our party) described it as being “like your grandmother’s house.” How they know what my grandmother’s house looks like is a mystery to me. The cocktail menu was superb, I am told by my cocktail-drinking friends. I stuck to beer myself. It did suffer from that cocktail bar disease of charging the price of a pint for a bottle, but the selection of lagers was suitably offbeat without being controversial. Oh, and kudos to the DJ for his taste in retro music.

When this place closed, Becky once more led the way – this time to an utterly charming place on Charing Cross Road, a members-only theatre bar known as the Phoenix Artist’s Club. I fell in love with the place instantly, it’s a proper boho old-school West End boozer. I’d love to say something meaningful about it, but by the end of the night I was utterly trashed and dancing like a twat. I should apologise to everyone who was forced to listen to me singing along to ‘Stars,’ as I recall my justification at the time was that Les Miserables is fucking awesome.” 

When the bar closed, the survivors staggered through the ruins of the Gay Pride event to get a cab back to Becky’s place in Notting Hill. I forget exactly how things ended, although I did wake on the floor, staring at a bra (I don’t think it was mine). Hungover as all hell, we grabbed breakfast at Mike’s Café on Blenheim Crescent. Mike’s is an extremely old-skool place that offers a very hearty breakfast at a very reasonable price – I accessorised mine with one of their gorgeous milkshakes. With Notting Hill increasingly falling prey to chains, it’s good to know you can still get something really special.

Now I’m off back to bed. Goodnight.

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Filed under Arts, Booze, Clubbing, Current events, Fitzrovia, Food, Geography, London, Notting Hill, Soho, Theatre, West End

Confessions of a Blogger

Can we talk about filth for a moment? Everyone okay with that? Vicar, you okay with that? Excellent, then we’ll begin. See, I’d like to talk today about one of those oddities of British cinema, a strange and slightly embarrassing dead-end that film historians rather like to pretend never happened. Namely, the British Sex Comedy.

Sex and comedy go well together. The human attitude to sex (generally speaking) is a very paradoxical thing. We’re not supposed to talk about it, but nevertheless it’s something that goes on all the time. Most of the population are either doing it or after it, whether they’ll admit it or not. The hypocrisy and repression surrounding it have been fertile grounds for humour since, well, literature was invented. Certainly Aristophanes managed to get a few gags out of it.

The joke here would appear to revolve around fisting.

Few nations not actively under a theocracy were quite as repressed as Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, and so a culture of innuendo-laden humour developed. A fine example is the rise of the saucy seaside postcard, one of which is shown on the right. Then, of course, you got the Carry On films, whose humour was heavily reliant on innuendo and which were sometimes funny. There’s a lot of nostalgia for this sort of thing now, with the Carry On films being practically respectable.

In the 1970s, however, British cinema ran into a problem – the American money that had funded the domestic product since the 1960s dried up, and so a pressing need developed for movies that would be cheap to produce, but which would make an awful lot of money. The solution was simple – comedy was cheap and sex brought in the punters.

The result was a slew of cheap, badly-made sex comedies made by Soho-based companies that somehow managed to be neither sexy nor funny. The plot was pretty much immaterial, just so long as you could get a few aspiring actresses to get ’em out for the lads. All that was really necessary was a setting that could be produced on the cheap. Basically, you were pushing the boat out if you filmed it beyond the edges of Greater London. If you were really lucky, you might get a derelict holiday camp or a condemned country house to play with. A common scenario, notably in the Confessions of… and Adventures of… series as well as many, many imitators, was that you would have a lovable and hideously ugly loser who would somehow be irresistable to attractive young women and… well, that was about it. Basically, invent a scenario into which naked women could be inserted and polish off the script in a day or two, we start filming Monday.

The humour, such as it was, tended to be weak innuendo and witless slapstick.  Bear in mind that this was an era when On The Buses was considered hilarious, and you’ll understand that the bar for hilarity in Britain was set pretty low.It didn’t really matter, in any case. I don’t think anyone from the 1970s to the present day has ever watched a British sex comedy for the humour.

Oddly enough, given that the majors selling point was sex, there’s something peculiarly unsexy about these films. Maybe it’s that the comedy isn’t exactly a turn-on – speeded-up footage and swannee whistles are alright for Benny Hill, but they don’t exactly say “steamy love scene.” Maybe it’s the gloomy, low-budget settings. If I were to offer my own personal suggestion, maybe it’s because they’re set in a universe in which Robin Askwith is a sex symbol.

Robin Askwith. Control yourselves, ladies.

There’s also something peculiarly tragic about watching them today. Due to the state of British cinema, these films were often able to obtain the services of actors who you’d think could do a lot better – John Le Mesurier, Windsor Davies, Charles Hawtrey. Some of them were clearly at the end of their careers and desperate for a buck – Alfie Bass in Come Play With Me being a particularly depressing example. This film is also notable for featuring Mary Millington, who would be dead of suicide two years later, and for starring and being directed by Harrison Marks, a man who never quite achieved the artistic credibility he so desperately desired. Once you know the background, it’s about the most miserable comedy ever written.

 
And yet, and yet. Despite being unutterably terrible, these films were undeniably successful. The Adventures of a Taxi Driver made more money in the UK than Taxi Driver on its release (no, I’m not the first person to make this observation). I spoke about actors ending their career with this crap – well, quite a few actually went on to become successful in more legitimate media. Robert Lindsay, Lynda Bellingham and Christopher Biggins all received an early leg-up from the dirty mac brigade. Hell, by the mid-1970s, other films were trying to imitate them. Try watching the 1974 Carry On Emmanuelle, whose dire attempts to imitate sex comedies led Barbara Windsor to turn the job down.
 
The success of these films highlights the hypocrisy I mentioned earlier – for all Mary Whitehouse and the like railed against “smut,” obviously there were enough people who disagreed with her to make these films a financially attractive proposition. In those days, it was about as explicit as you could get in the UK.
 
Such films ceased in the early 1980s, the oft-cited reason being that more explicit and better-made pornography from Europe and the States became available on home video around this time. The British cinema industry collectively decided to pretend that none of this had ever happened and the British cinema audience decided to go along with that. Aside from a few throwbacks like the dire Sex Lives of the Potato Men a few years back, the genre is deceased.
 
Or is it? Sure, the reasons for making these films no longer exist, and the chances of anything like this appearing in the mainstream cinema again are slim to nil, but I will leave you with this fact. The most successful porn star in Britain today is a Cockney chancer operating under the name of Ben Dover. Maybe the genre didn’t die. Maybe it just crossed over.
 
Anyway, I’m off to have a wash. I may never be clean again.
 

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Film and TV, History, London, Soho, Suburbia

In the meantime, here’s this.

A Correspondent.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’m currently in the middle of moving house. I never realised quite how much crap I own. Anyway, sadly, this means I don’t really have the time for a proper entry this Wednesday, for which I apologise.

In the meantime, however, here is a song you might like by genius Wandsworth electro-swingers the Correspondents. I think ‘What’s Happened to Soho?’ might have to be the official theme tune of this blog.

Or maybe ‘Splendid‘ by Professor Elemental should be the theme. Hmm. This may require some thought.

In Other News
Does anyone know where Oxshott is? Because I fell asleep on the train last night and ended up there.

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Filed under Arts, Current events, Fashion and trends, London, Meta, Music, Notable Londoners, Soho, West End

A nice little cottage

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.

You do not pull the urinal off the wall and turn it into avant garde art.

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 “dirtyhold… 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.

Further Reading
Turns out I’m not the only one this has happened to.

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