Wanderlust and Friends of Valerie
By Adam Pemberton
I am completely, unapologetically in love with London. I’ve lived here for 25 years, been visiting for over 30 and, no disrespect to everywhere else, but I believe it to be the finest city in the world. As a result, it’s also the place where most of the milestones and monuments of my gay life can be found. So to mark LGBT History Month 2018 and its theme of ‘Geography – mapping our world’, I decided to map some of the places, people and ideas that have shaped my life in the city I adore.
My very first experience of London had no map. At 15, after my parents divorced, I used my new-found weekend freedom to ride the 40 minutes into London where for hours I would just walk. It didn’t matter in what direction I went or for how long or where I ended up. I just wandered.
I couldn’t have told you then why but I know now that I was unconsciously looking for something, somebody, somewhere I could belong. It is hard to recall from the vantage point of the digital age that it was once quite so difficult to find a new community – especially one half-hidden – outside your own.
‘I fell instantly in love with Valerie’s bohemian cafe atmosphere.
And when I did find my first obviously ‘gay friendly’ landmark, it wasn’t even a result of my wandering. It was the mid-80s and I was definitely not out, when an older friend from school took me to Patisserie Valerie with a whispered warning not to be shocked by anything we might see within. But it wasn’t shock I felt – I fell instantly in love with Valerie’s bohemian cafe atmosphere. With hindsight, I’m sure it was actually the tamest of introductions to gay life and a Soho that was losing its louche reputation. But for a painfully self-conscious sixteen year old from Essex, it felt exotic and a first passport into a new world.
Today the original shop has expanded and its neighbourhood is less and less gay but, to me, Valerie’s will always be the place where I first tried to flirt and be cool (no discernible success at either) and where, after a lot of searching, I caught my first glimpses of a different way of being.
Long before I learned of Barnardo’s Safe Zone allies programme, my map of London was overlaid with safe and (much larger) unsafe zones. You wouldn’t find these boundaries marked on any maps but, for me, they couldn’t have been more real if they’d had border guards and passport control at their margins.
Valerie’s sat at the epicentre of what felt for me the safest of all – Old Compton Street and the surrounding
streets of Soho. As important as it was to find welcoming pubs, clubs and shops there, the real prize was feeling you were in a place, with a community, where you could be or find yourself. Where the act of holding the hand or kissing someone you love wasn’t daring or risky or even unusual. Whenever I stepped inside those zones, it brought with it a dizzying sense of being free and a weight lifting.
But at either end of Old Compton Street or the fringes of Soho, as I crossed back into the wider world, without doing it consciously, held hands would spring apart and we would walk with ever-so-slightly greater distance between us. A matter of yards made public displays of affection suddenly fraught and the closet closed around me.
It took me many years to realise how ingrained those feelings were. And I know now that these were borders I constructed in my own mind which I could – should – have been braver about crossing. I admire more than I can say the fearless souls who saw no such boundaries or just chose to ignore them, facing down the discomfort and, too often, abuse of others. They deserve the credit for creating a different, bigger map where it is safer for LGBT people to openly be themselves. And when I see today same sex couples holding hands in every part of the city, it makes me smile and give them silent thanks.
Gone not Forgotten
I might be one of the only people who feels fondness for the grotty green and cream tiles of the old Tottenham Court Road underground station. Because for me, that cramped station was the gateway I passed through on my way to my first gay bars and clubs, all of which lay within a 100 yards radius of the station.
I cannot remember the name of the first gay bar I ever went to but I can remember exactly where it was. It is long gone, now a dingy shop on Hanway Street just off Oxford Street. The first time I went, I can remember standing outside trying to pluck up the courage to cross a threshold that felt like a tangible barrier I would have to force myself through. When I eventually did (after one or two times chickening out), it was nothing special – subterranean and very eighties with lots of chrome and mirrors – but it was another turning point in my life.
Just as important, around the corner was First Out – the gay café I remember now with great affection. And when it came to dancing, my love of cheesy dance pop (which lasts to this day) was honed first in Bang! at Astoria 2 and then upstairs at the legendary G.A.Y. in the Astoria proper.
These were the days before TV talent shows when just about every new pop act tried out first with the supposedly discerning gay crowds. At G.A.Y. we saw pretty much every aspiring 90s boy or girl band go through their routines. It was a place of pure excitement and happiness – even if one of my best friends still complains bitterly to this day that I made her miss Steps because I took too long getting ready.
But you won’t find any of these places on a map anymore. The station, the café, the clubs have all gone and there is instead now a giant hole in the ground making way for Crossrail. A tiny bit of me finds it sad that places that meant so much to me no longer exist outside a map in my mind. But I’m not one for lazy nostalgia and the bigger part of me knows that London would cease to be London if it stopped changing – it’s the deal you have no choice but to make if you really love this city.
‘We knew them as the Bar-muda Triangle
In the 90s, for me and my friends, there were really only three gay bars that mattered – The Edge in Soho Square, The Box near Seven Dials and Kudos on King William IV Street. We knew them as the Bar-muda Triangle and many an hour and night was lost in one or the other (and sometimes all).
We would shuttle from one to the other – always concerned that whichever one we weren’t in must be the better place to be (FOMO not just being a 21st century disease). I met a boyfriend in one of these bars but I can’t remember which (boyfriend or bar). But I do recall having my first kiss with my current partner in the downstairs bar at Kudos. None of them are gay venues any more (you can begin to see a pattern emerging) but I walked those pavements so many times I could probably still navigate the streets between them blindfold today.
These bars also represented a noticeable change in the geography – or at least altitude – of the places where LGBT people met. The gay venues I had first visited tended, for understandable reasons, to be very ‘discreet’, behind blacked-out windows or many in windowless basements. It didn’t make them any less fun but there was an inevitable sense when inside of having to be closed off from the rest of the world. For me, it sent a subliminal message that being there was something to hide.
But these new bars were something quite different – above ground, multi-level and with big picture windows through which to see and be seen. The migration of bars a few feet from below street level to above and the size of windows might seem trivial, but they represented the possibility of being more open to the world and vice versa. I don’t know what made this change happen – a cocktail of shifting social attitudes, canny entrepreneurs and licensing changes maybe – but I’m very glad it did.
Maps of the Gay Past – and How to Be
Also in the 90s, a gay friend of mine ran a short lived night for gay women called Sahara just off Seven Dials. This fabulous and formidable woman, a native New Yorker, blessed me with two unconventional maps which I treasure to this day.
The first was her (at times wildly subjective) guide to gay history, art, literature and style. It was a crash course in the glamour of black & white movie stars, LGBT creativity in its many forms and an incongruous blend of disco and the equality struggle in 70s New York. She helped me navigate a past I barely knew and it is thanks to her that I am steeped in the films of Carole Lombard, can quote ‘Auntie Mame’ virtually word for word and know how to mix a perfect Old-Fashioned. I hope I retain a fraction of her restless desire to always keep reading, learning and exploring.
The other map she gave is arguably more important. She shared with me a way of being, a set of values on how to take responsibility for myself and my actions and to expect others to do the same. Her unwillingness to suffer fools and bracing directness didn’t always win or keep friends but, to this day, I admire her refusal to let bad behaviour go. When I think about the journey I’ve taken since my early twenties to today, and even though we have since drifted apart, I feel her guiding presence – especially when it’s cocktail hour!
There is only one other personal London landmark to mention and it isn’t a gay venue at all. But I include it on this list because it is, in many ways, the most significant of my entire life. Because Marine Ices in Chalk Farm is where I met my partner for the first time.
He didn’t know that he’d been set up on a date – he thought he was coming to someone’s birthday party – and it took all my skills of persuasion to get him to go out on a second. But he gave in eventually and we have lived together for the 24 years since, around the corner from Marine Ices. So that ice cream shop will always have a special place in my heart.
And yes, you’ve guessed it, they knocked it down a few months ago…
Maps as living things
Maps are much more than pieces of paper and geography is more enduring than what surrounds you. They are living things.
I’m fortunate that, in time, the worlds I had kept separate through my teens and twenties eventually overlapped and blurred until they became one whole. I’ve seen most of the places I remember growing up swept away by the ever-changing city and then seen boundaries dissolve almost entirely in the digital age.
But throughout, I know that the maps I stumbled upon, learned or which were gifted to me by others helped me to find myself long ago and they still ground me today. Writing this made me remember that I carry them with me always, without even knowing it. And I’m very grateful for that.
Image credits: © OpenStreetMap contributors
© Adam Pemberton © Nathan Parker ©Rob Ingham