More tales from the Coleherne
What amazing fortune that I paid heed to all those people who have told me I should write my autobiography! Okay, well I’m not quite up for that, but it is a joy dotting down some stories, every now and again, for these memoires. Little could I have imagined what a great blessing it would be to write the one called “Tales of the Coleherne”, back in February 2017. I wrote it as a tiny contribution to this year’s LGB&T History Month, especially given the significance of the 50th anniversary since the first partial decriminalisation of male homosex in England and Wales.
On 30th March, just over a month after I published the blog, I had an e-mail from the award-winning Swan Films TV company. The e-mail, from Chloe, asked if I would be interested in sharing my stories of the Coleherne with the actor Rupert Everett. Chloe and I spoke on the phone the following day (Friday) and I was trotting off to The Pembroke, the new gastro-bar’s name for the no-longer-gay Coleherne in Earl’s Court, on Monday 3rd April – leather motorbike jacket in hand! I’ll tell you about that later!
It was my first time to Earl’s Court by Tube (Metro) in more than a decade. As I exited on Earl’s Court Road, as I said I always liked to do in the other Coleherne story, I had a flashback to a toilet in the corner of the station, tucked away amongst the shops. So many men going to the Coleherne used to pop in to the “cottage” as they got off the tube. If they fancied someone they saw in there, they might end up following each other to the various local gay pubs: the Bolton, Coleherne or Bromptons. Some might even carry on their cruising in nearby Brompton Cemetery! Eye flirting, back in those days, was amazing – it had its very own language.
Of course Mr Everett is famous! He has appeared in a huge number of films and theatre productions, with my most recent recollection of him as the evil Phillipe Feron in The Musketeers (2016). For sure, two of the most memorable of his productions for me include his early role in Another Country (1984), and then his ever-so moving documentary on the Nazi persecution of gay males, in Paragraph 175 (2000).
The “homosexual” men sent to Nazi concentration camps, so often worked to death or killed in other heinous ways and frequently forgotten in Holocaust Memorial Day and similar events, were forced to wear a pink triangle, the Rosa Winkle, on their prison camp uniforms. That’s why the colour pink and / or the pink triangle motif has been used specifically by gay males, for decades, as sign of our history and solidarity. The pink triangle was emblematic of gay / LGB&T+ emancipation and rights long before the American popularisation of the rainbow flag and NYC’s Greenwich Village Stonewall Riots. Those riots happened on 28 June 1969; twelve years after the Wolfenden Committee recommended to the UK Parliament a partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales, and two years after change in the law actually happened in the Sexual Offences Bill, enacted, of course, “by The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty” on the 27th July 1967.
Chloe, the film director, Michael, and the camera crew gave me a really warm welcome and thanked me for coming. After I was wired up with a small microphone, Chloe asked me to put my leather jacket on! Then she asked me to wait to one side, before walking over to Rupert and two other men of similar age to us all, sitting on stools at a tall table. I was greeted by Mr Everett and the other two men.
Rupert said “I think I recognise you!” I honestly don’t ever remember seeing him in the Coleherne, but that’s not surprising. If ever I saw someone famous out on ‘the [gay] scene’ – and I have – I would think “poor thing, I bet they get no privacy, with all their fans constantly wanting to talk to them”. So I would avert my eyes and avoid them! But only afterwards I thought to myself – and please don’t think me pretentious in saying this (oh, go on then!) – but I think we might have been at an fpa / Brook summer event, hosted by the wonderful Baroness Gould, on the terraces of the House of Lords. Or maybe it was at the same venue, for the All Party Parliamentary Group for HIV and AIDS. Some such sexual health event, I’m sure.
Wired up with a mic and a large microphone dangling over our heads, one of the first things I mentioned was my leather jacket. It’s a TT motorbike jacket – I just forgot to buy the accompanying helmet and, more essentially, the motorbike! I bought the jacket to go to the Coleherne, no doubt, back in 1989 when I left the priesthood and moved to London. I started work on an HIV ward at St Mary’s Paddington – not far from Earl’s Court – on 25th September 1989. The jacket was paid for in weekly instalments: I bought it off my mother’s catalogue. As you’ll see from the pix, the jacket no longer fits, but Chloe said “bring it along so we can have a look at it”, which made it sound like some sort of historic relic of the past. It fitted me perfectly when I bought it. I was 75Kg when I moved to London, and probably weighing about 108 now: so today it is tight!
Do you remember …
There were 3 of us there chatting with Mr Everett. It was an amazing walk down memory lane that we all thoroughly enjoyed. We spent a couple of hours just reminiscing and laughing, even though maybe only a few seconds or minutes will eventually end up in the final Channel 4 TV documentary, #50ShadesOfGay. Rupert is making it for this 50th anniversary year since that first partial decriminalisation, when I was 10 years old. That momentous event applied only to England and Wales. Scotland followed suit in 1980 and Northern Ireland – sadly – of course, even later (1982). When you think that Lord Wolfenden recommended the change back in 1957, then it took some time indeed to be enacted!
My own stories of the Coleherne and Earl’s Court are clearly in 3 different eras. The first era was the late 70s, when I used to hitch-hike from Neath, in South Wales, to Earl’s Court, just to have a few pints, then hitch-hike back home. I’ve recounted that in my other story. Rupert asked if I was always “lucky”: did I have sex? After all, I was a hot-blooded teenager / early 20s in those days. Funnily enough, I often didn’t. When Rupert and the others asked why not, I said I remember being happy enough just to be there “with men like me”. If I was going there in the ‘70s, from about age 18 to 21-ish, then the Law of the Realm even made it criminal for me to have had any sex at that time (not that that really stopped anyone, of course).
The second era was during my 20s, the 1980s. Two key reasons why I most certainly did not have sex then: firstly, I was studying to be a Catholic priest, and I tried hard for a number of years to be faithful to my commitment of celibacy, but also, AIDS was announced on the world stage on 5th June 1981.
I remember how frightened people were back then, frightened of having sex. Even an American safer sex slogan of the day proclaimed “on me, not in me”. I’m glad I was celibate for a few years over that period in history. By the time I left the priesthood and moved to London, we all knew so much more about how to practice safer sex. I even had a t-shirt back then which proudly and intentionally promoted safer sex. It said:
“Play safe now: Ask me how!”
I studied at Canterbury for 5 years (1980 – 1985) and would very occasionally pop in to the Coleherne, if I was visiting London; simply, again, to be with “men like me”. As the years passed from 1967, and “gay liberation” became more of an exciting human rights issue to engage within the 1970s, it was sad to hit the ‘80s with the ravages of HIV. In bars like the Coleherne (and so many others, of course), one could often see HIV etched across a person’s face and body. Some had the tell-tale signs of HIV wasting syndrome; others had visible KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma) lesions. But even more so than the illness, the solidarity it bred in so many of us just made it even more lovely and important to be in the company of “my brothers”, “other men like me”.
There certainly was a solidarity, back then, that the three of us with Rupert were saying doesn’t seem to exist in the same ways these days. It was as though being illegal (well, our acts), and then being stigmatisingly associated with HIV, gave us a profound sense – and militancy – of a “gay community”. The four of use bemoaned the fact that that particular incarnation of ‘community’, of shared deviancy, no longer seems to exists.
One of the guys told us how he and his long-term partner were arrested and sent to Magistrates Court for walking out of the Coleherne with an arm around each other’s shoulders! “Hilda Handcuffs” (aka the Police, back then) said the couple could have caused a riot, a breach of the peace, by their “lewd” behaviour!
Swan Films Director, Michael, asked us to tell stories about how we remembered the building. I most certainly remember a huge grandfather clock near the stairs. That was down the “non-leather” end. The other half of the bar, with two doors into the street, was at ‘the leather end’.
Just in the corner of the leather end was a toilet. It is now locked, and opened on request for easy access to people with mobility requirements. Rupert could remember a local person who used to make Poppers (amyl / butyl nitrate) in his own flat and bring them to sell at the Coleherne! As the barista unlocked the toilet for us to look in, we all burst out laughing as we made a range of comments on how so many people did their “courting” in there (I’m being polite, here, for sensitive eyes). I could also remember how, on really packed nights in the bar when, honestly, it was like some sort of orgiastic gyration simply to push through people to reach the bar and get a drink, or make your way to the loo for a pee, the place would be heaving with bodies. It was the most lucrative bar in the whole pub chain. As the four of us and TV crew looked into the toilet, I reminisced how people would take the light bulb out and plunge the place into total darkness!
In my third era of visiting the Coleherene, in the early 90s, the upstairs bar was more for that sort of thing, as PSE (public sex environs) were not “policed” in such a menacing way as they were in our earlier days.
Just one more story on the toilets. On Monday 3rd April, just as our filmed interviews were ending, I said I needed a pee. I made my way to the toilets (down the former non-leather end of the bar) only to be confronted by a waitress carrying a plate of hot food from the very direction I was heading in. She smiled, knowingly, and said “the toilets are downstairs now”. How many times has she seen us former clientele make that same mistake, I wonder?
You are probably longing for me to get to the story about Rupert, fondling someone’s bum. In these current times when terms such as “safeguarding”, “consent”, “non/coercion”, “sexual violence” etc. are uppermost in society’s mind, it was wonderfully evocative to recall those past times and remind ourselves what it was like ‘back in the day’. Rupert asked us if we could remember standing next to someone we fancied, and fondling their bum! If they didn’t want the attention, they would either walk away or politely tell one to fuck off! If they didn’t object, they were more likely just to stand there, carry on drinking and chatting away, and enjoy the experience! Some were good-mannered enough to turn around afterwards and say “thank you!” Gosh, we were so polite back then!
We then remembered that similar frottage (and more), by gays and straights, used to happen on the Underground Tubes, too. I told them a story about the female condom, Femidom. When I first started teaching HIV studies and sexual health, I had some Femidoms for teaching and display purposes. The manufacturers brought out a little instruction booklet, and on the centrefold pages the headline proudly proclaimed
“Ladies: your vagina is not a hole, it is a tunnel of love.”
Hahaha! That was about the same time that the London Metro newspaper had front page headline news, referring to sex on the Underground, declaring “The Northern Line is the Tunnel of Love”.
We could all recount some more police harassment stories from back then too. Strange how the Police and Her Majesty’s Armed Forces tend to lead the various LGB&T+ Pride marches these days! It wasn’t like it back then. I can remember outside Brief Encounter, in St Martin’s Lane, where there was a rope cordon running in a line about a metre from the side of the building. If any of us fags dared cross the line with an alcoholic drink in our hands – or any sign of touching or affection, ‘Lily Law’ / ‘Hilda Handcuffs’ would be down on us like a tonne of bricks! I even remember a LGB&T protest march outside of Parliament, when the police looked at us with folded arms and scowling faces, and all us chanting defiantly back at them …
“2, 4, 6, 8, is that copper really straight!”
Remember the hateful days of some of the British tabloid papers?
One of the other people at Rupert’s table used to be the cartoonist for the now defunct Gay News (obviously not the cartoonist who drew the homophobic sketch from The [scurrilous & homophobic] Sun, above). We recalled how satire and cartoons, especially poking fun at the anti-gay establishment, was one of the key ways of defusing the tension when times were bad for us, and hostile against our new-found liberation, (but that’s another story, later).
Rupert, Tony, Nick and the film crew laughed about the story of my Mother and the “Puffs”! My mother was very naïve. She was born in 1921 in Aberdare, Glamorganshire. For a good half of her life, she didn’t knowingly know any “homosexuals”. In fact, she was such a prude about sex, even if she did know about them, she would have wondered how the hell two men could ‘do’ anything together sexually, given that they didn’t have the ‘plumbing’ ‘like a man and woman’! In those dark days for us gay males, media and television portrayal (if at all) would have been of homosexuals as criminals, duplicitous spies, naughty people, sexual predators – and the Puffs! That’s right. All those camp and effeminate men of TV in the past: Liberace, Kenneth Williams, Danny LaRue etc., my Mother had no comprehension about gay or homosexual at all, she thought they were effeminate because “they must have been too close to their mothers”, “tied to the mother’s apron strings”, or just a “Mammy’s boy” … and that’s what made them PUFFS! Not poufs, but PUFFS!
I even took a boyfriend back home once (not that she realised that’s what he was, of course) and sometime after she asked me: “Is he a bit of a PUFF?” That’s all I could imagine was a big cream cake: a REAL puff!
The four of us also recalled the ‘leather queens’ at the Coleherne who would turn up, head to toe in biker’s gear, replete with crash helmet – in their carrier bags – walking straight from the tube station!
Now there’s another story I told Rupert and our audience, from the late ‘70s, that I must warn the faint hearted amongst you reading this, to avert your eyes now: don’t read on!
… You’ve been warned!
The four of us could remember a sex shop next door or near to the pub. I must have been a teenager at the time when I went in there, no doubt paranoid someone in the world who knew me would ‘catch’ me going in. The mags and books were all soft core; anything else was illegal back then and the shop would have been shut down had they been caught selling it! But the heavier stuff did exist, one just had to ask for it and get it in plain brown paper bags, from ‘under the counter’. The shop also sold a whole lot of sex toys and SM paraphernalia. I had never seen anything like it before! In fact, I couldn’t really imagine what or how people would use half of it! My Mother’s naïveté certainly rubbed off on me (well, back then it did). Oh yes, they sold poppers, too, which I thought smelt like locker-room socks and jocks! But I remember seeing a locked glass cabinet. When I looked in, there were some Foley’s urinary catheters sitting there. Why the hell were they selling medical equipment in a sex shop?!? As a student nurse at the time, I knew the importance of aseptic technique especially so as not to introduce infection. But I also knew how a perfect catheterisation technique was necessary too, to avoid any internal trauma. So what was a sex shop doing selling health care products like this? It worried me all the way home to Wales. The next day I wrote an anonymous letter to the manger asking him to stop selling these products, as they could cause anything from localised trauma to ascending infection to the kidneys, if introduced incorrectly!
The film crew asked Rupert to ask me more stories about my time as a Catholic priest again. Then somehow, one of us said something in the former gay-speak Polari. Rupert had us splitting our sides laughting as he read a whole section, on the Director’s phone, from the Polari Bible. He read the story of creation in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis; I just wished we’d had it like this in Catholic seminary!
Amen Alleluia to that, I say!
I then told them about an incident on the number 64 bus from Stazioni Termini in Rome, to the Vatican, when I was a newly ordained priest. That’s at this link, on another blog page in these memoirs. Finally, we discussed how so many gay bars are just disappearing these days, Earl’s Court, Soho, all over. We discussed the impact these bars had on us as we grew up in the post-1967 generation, notions of about being gay; or queer; about identity, and that illusive thing called the gay “community”.
They laughed when I told them that my friends and bar staff in the local (straight) pub affectionately refer to me as “BGD”: Big Gay Dave!
How times have changed, and what an awesome experience this was to meet the Swan Film Company, the other guests, with the lovely Mr Rupert Everett; an evening I will for ever cherish.
09 April 2017