Being a teenager through the 1970s, when partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality was just around 10+ years old (1967), it’s fair to say I was paranoid of being out – or being spotted on “the scene” – in Cardiff, the city of my birth. There were a few known gay bars and clubs, such as Robert’s Bar, in the basement of a big hotel, and some other hotel bars, which might be open for ‘homosexual clientele’ one evening a week, but there were no rainbow flags flying and even less visible pride. Sadly, the ethos of those times for so many of us was still exceptionally negative, furtive and clandestine, but our nascent resilience laid foundations for equality of diversity for the future.
I remember being in Robert’s Bar one night, soon after the then Anglican Bishop of Llandaff had been arrested for cottaging in a famous loo, at the bottom of Llandaff Fields, right near his cathedral church. A married man with grown-up children, the Bishop would go cottaging in Llandaff Fields toilet wearing his princely purple stock and Roman collar.
There was an outrageous ‘screaming queen’ acquaintance of mine from Robert’s Bar, who loved wearing chiffons and silk scarves and really camping it up whenever presumed straight men would be looking at “her” (remember, this is the ‘70s, when a lot of gay men still referred to others with women’s names and feminine pronouns). I remember walking down the street with him when this gang of butch-looking men stared menacingly at us. “Don’t you look at me like that!” [s]he screamed … “your brother might be one!” Hahaha! I can laugh now, but at the time I’m sure we were ready to run for our lives.
Anyway, Robert’s Bar staff encouraged punters to write messages, polite graphitti, on the walls, like a calling-card or visitor’s book. No doubt many of us used pseudonyms back then, too. Going through a rather pious phase at the time, I remember being outraged when someone wrote something lewd on the wall and signed it “+Stephen Llandaff”, as though the Bishop had been there himself. Stephen’s story was a tragic, especially the way press hounded him; he was forced to leave his post.
Negative and reverse role models seemed to be the order of the day at the time.
After finishing 2 year’s orthopædic nursing in Cardiff, I then moved for 3 years’ SRN training at Neath. This was a time of gradually increasing sexual freedom for me, even though I would flip-flop with guilt about it, knowing I was probably heading to become a Catholic priest at some point in the future. From about the age of 19 through to around 21, rather than go to the limited gay scene in Cardiff, I would hitch-hike all the way from Neath (Britton Ferry roundabout), via the M4, to London – about 190 miles each way. In one of the few gay magazines back in those days, the Gay News or Gay Times (which the retailer W.H.Smith simply refused to stock), I’d read about a pub in London, called The Coleherne, in Earl’s Court. In fact, it sounded like the whole of Earl’s Court was gay back then! So I would hitch-hike from Neath to London, taking most of the day, I’m sure, and would head straight to Earl’s Court.
My heart would be pounding as I got on the Underground and headed for Earl’s Court. I preferred exiting the tube station on Earl’s Court Road, rather than at the Exhibition Centre end, as it seemed that there were more men ‘like me’ getting off the trains and heading out that way. Some even used to wear pretty coloured hankies in their back pockets; I was SO innocent and naïve I probably thought this was some sort of Laura Ashely-ism for metropolitan queens!
The Coleherne was famous. I suppose the local police might have preferred calling it infamous! The police, with their pretty-boy coppers acting as agent provocateurs, regularly harassed the pub and its punters. In those days we used to mockingly call the police “Hilda Handcuffs” or “Lily Law”. Little could we have imaginined back then that the Police and Her Majesty’s Armed Forces would become some of the best Stonewall diversity employers in the 21st century.
In the 1970s pubs would be licenced to open 12-3pm of a day, and then later at something like 6pm until about 10.30pm (closing even earlier on Sundays). So I would go in to the Coleherne and have a drink.
At 3pm kicking-out time, I would become a tourist around London, visiting the famous sites and buying loads of postcards of my sojourn before heading back to the Coleherne in the evening. I would then get the tube to Hammersmith or Chiswick and hitch-hike all the way back to Neath by early hours the next morning. I hardly ever had sex!
When the Coleherne closed for the night, the whole square around it became like a scene from Al Pacino in Cruising. There was one occasion when I, too, walked slowly around the block until it was time for me to get the last tube back to Hammersmith and hitch-hike back to Wales. As I walked to the station, these two really good looking men asked me if I needed a bed for the night, as they had a spare mattress. That was SO kind of them, I thought. So, I went back with them. They lived in a flat near Earl’s Court; right enough, there was a spare mattress in the hallway of the house for any of the residents to borrow. They dragged the mattress into their sitting room, made it up, said good night and off they went to bed. They woke me up the next morning, gave me breakfast, and I started my journey back home, virgo intacta as one might say! They were perfect gentlemen: damn!
On another occasion, lifts were dreadful getting back to Wales. I’d get people who were turning off the M4 somewhere random (for me). You need to remember, this was in the days before CCTV cameras spying on us at every point and junction. So I’d get a lift for a good few miles, possibly to Reading, Slough … Bristol, and would be dropped off on a slip road of the motorway! Of course, pedestrians aren’t allowed on the carriageway, so I would run along the grass verge, in the middle of the night or early hours in the morning, for miles, until I got to a busier slip road. Every time a car passed I would lie face down on the grass verge just in case it was Hilda Handcuffs! But on this one occasion, me, about 20-or-so, I guess, and this bloke around double my age picked me up.
I was wearing a pair of wripped jeans – I’m sure we did that ourselves in those days, before there were ever such things as ‘Designer scuff’. Anyway, I had a patch sewn on my knee which read “Seeds and vaccines, not bombs and bullets”. The driver touched the patch and said “That’s nice!” I moved my legs away in the opposite direction! Then he did it again and asked what it said – I told him and moved my legs away again.
Then he put his hand on my knee and said something like “I bet a nice looking guy like you has a girl friend, and you probably get up to all sorts of things in the bedroom department ….” In my mind, I thought: “I can see where he thinks this is going. There’s only one way to get off the topic of sex: talk religion at him!” So I said “Excuse me! But I’m a Catholic and we don’t do that sort of thing!” Lying git, I thought! Hypocrite! But I just wanted him to back off, and he did. He apologised and let me out at the very next junction. How come I never got chatted up like that by a gorgeous Adonis? Life’s unfair sometimes!
Young people of the 21st century will probably never be able to comprehend this, but with the pubs closing so early, and many Local Authorities not liking us gay people, it was difficult for places to get a drinks’ licence. So a late night dance club opened around the corner from the Coleherne; it’s somebody’s garage these days, I see it every time I drive through Earl’s Court. The club was called The Catacombs. They couldn’t sell alcohol, so we just drank milk!
Another time I was standing at the bar, going crazy ‘letching’ this big gorgeous hunk, like something from Village People. He was tall, handsome, with a moustache, and of course he was wearing a hard-hat helmet – in the pub! He had wripped jeans on and his b******* were just about visible, dangling out. Definitely not the attire to take home to meet my Mother! Anyway, I thought he was mega stunning! I was too shy to go up and talk to him, so I kept glancing over until he simply knew I was interested in him. After some long while, he came and stood right next to me. I was beside myself with excitement. Well, that was until he opened his gob! The barman came over, and in the campest, the most effeminate voice possible, this ‘hunk’ of a man said “A double gin and tonic, pleassssse, Darling!”
Fastfoward two decades to the 1990s. By this time, I had moved to London to work as a Staff Nurse on an HIV ward at St Mary’s Paddington. Earl’s Court wasn’t too far from the Nurses’ home where I lived. But now, go into the pub of a day time and you would just see group after group walk in wearing white shirts, black suits and black ties. Another friend died from AIDS.
For a great interview on the Colehern, by William Brougham, click YouTube.
For a Wikipedia article on The Coleherne, click here.
I am recounting these stories as part of my contribution to the 2017 50th anniversary celebrations of partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the England and Wales, as well as presenting at the Imperial War Museum, London, “OUTing The Past” conference, 18 Feb 2017.
Wolfenden – Abse – Equality
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